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?

29 comments:

sara said...

Putting it on order.

J G-W said...

It's also available in Kindle format at a VERY reasonable price. (Which is how I read it... I'm reading everything on my Kindle these days...)

Jonathan Langford said...

Thanks for your comments. It's been interesting to get reader reactions on points such as the book's inclusion of multiple points of view. Some readers have wished that I had focused more purely on Paul's own narrative, but (as you said) the intent of the book had never been just to tell his story.

My primary intended audience wasn't actually gay Mormon youth, but rather active adult Mormons of relatively liberal reading habits without any necessary personal investment in this issue: e.g., no family members (that they know of) who are gay. I've been sending out review copies recently to get a sense of how approachable the story might be to non-Mormon readers as well -- so far with at least partly positive results. To the best of my knowledge, the book hasn't had many teen readers, gay or not. (My oldest son, 20 when the book was published, refused to read more than a few scenes, saying that the book did too good a job of capturing what high school life was like -- not something he particularly wanted to revisit.)

In any event, thanks for a thoughtful and well-written review. I'm glad there were things in No Going Back that connected for you as a reader.

J G-W said...

Interesting... It reads very much as if it's aimed at a teen/youth audience. Or, at the very least, aimed at folks who will interact with gay Mormon youth? It seems like concern about the impact of homophobia on Mormon youth is such a strong subtext of the novel...

If you were aiming at an older audience, I guess I'm curious why you didn't choose an older protagonist. The choices that a gay Mormon has to make are considerably different between the ages of, say, 25 and 35. In a sense, that's really the crucial time period in a person's life with regard to making decisions about family and relationships, not so much 15-16. (Though I agree -- and the novel seems to articulate this -- decisions we make about sex at 15-16 certainly will have an impact on decisions we make later in life...)

C. L. Hanson said...

Re: 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

I disagree. True, in this book, the word "marriage" is reserved for straights only. But then he portrays "marriage" the way a gay male would normally view enforced (straight) marriage -- as the odious vegetable that everyone tells you is supposed to be good for you. In this book, "marriage" is the equivalent of eating dog shit that your bishop has tried to convince you is magically made of chocolate (and you try to force yourself to believe it).

Please see my discussion here.

Jonathan Langford said...

C. L. Hanson, you're the only reader who's ever expressed that reaction to the story, to the best of my knowledge. Based on the evidence available to me, your reading is a decidedly eccentric one in this respect.

Jonathan Langford said...

John,

I wrote a lengthy comment in response to your thoughts which unfortunately seems to have been lost. I'll try to repost the ideas later.

J G-W said...

Jonathan - I'm sorry you lost your longer comment... I checked my comment filter to see if Blogger somehow tried to treat it as spam (that sometimes happens). Unfortunately, it didn't, so I hope I'll get to see your longer reaction later.

CL - I actually loved the portrait of the relationship between Richard and his wife. I liked it almost enough to comment on it in my review.

Maybe it's that I've been married (to a man) long enough (almost two decades) to realize that one of the great challenges of any relationship that lasts that long is balancing the challenges of career, personal interests, religious and social commitments and marriage. And yes, any loving couple can sometimes fall into the trap of letting other priorities impinge on their relationship. A relationship is something you always have to keep investing in if it is going to grow.

I also found the narrative about their marriage an interesting counterpoint to the whole gay marriage debate in the novel. Clearly, the main threat to the most prominent heterosexual marriage in the novel was the couple's own failure to communicate, spend time together, and share responsibilities -- not the fact that Michael and Matthew down the street want to make vows to each other.

I didn't see any of this as portraying distaste for women or marriage... Nor did I see Richard's interest in Paul as anything other than fatherly... I agree with you that Richard's marriage is portrayed as fairly passionless; in a way, Richard and Sandy's marriage is a victim -- like so many marriages in our culture -- of middle class convention, and a religious culture that puts HUGE demands on its lay leaders. I loved that Jonathan was willing to put that out there in his novel, in a way that invites reflection about what we really value in marriage and in our relationships with those who are most important to us.

There were a number of passages in the novel where the idea that same-sex relationships must be inherently inferior to heterosexual relationships was explicitly expressed. The way it was presented was important, because it was the only rational framework presented in the novel for encouraging Paul to embrace a life of celibacy and (maybe! eventually!) marriage to a woman.

It also, parenthetically, was offered as the rationale for opposing legal same-sex marriage. In essence, the argument becomes, We know what's best for you, because that kind of so-called marriage will make you miserable, since you're not capable of the same kind of love and happiness in that kind of marriage as a man and a woman are capable of.

Jonathan Langford said...

I suppose it's a reminder that I should save before doing anything potentially disruptive, like clicking the Publish button...

One of the things I wanted to share was my observations that traditionally, there are at least two critical decision points for gay Mormons, at least gay Mormon males. The first comes after mission (or equivalent life experience) when one must decide between (a) heterosexual marriage, (b) celibacy, or (c) leaving the Church. The second is in midlife, when (in particular) those who chose to marry heterosexually must re-confront that decision and decide if it still works for them.

I think it's generally true that those who are gay become aware of it during their teens (though I know some exceptions). However, prior to the past 10-15 years or so, all of the incentives were on delaying internal recognition of that fact as long as possible: to wish it will go away, or stifle consciousness of it, or whatever. This meant that believing Mormon teens who also experienced homosexual attractions typically weren't confronted by a truly challenging decision about what to do about those feelings until their twenties.

The same is not, I believe, true today, particularly in more liberal areas such as western Oregon (and western Wisconsin where I currently live). Instead, the growing acceptance of homosexuality as part of mainstream culture means that gay teenage Mormons are likely to face an initial decision point about whether or not to stay in the Church before they've had a chance to develop a testimony or serve a mission or any other things that might make them feel that the Church has something to offer them. In many cases, I suspect that such teens mentally "check out" before family or bishops or youth leaders have any idea that there's an issue.

Jonathan Langford said...

Part 2...

I think you're right that No Going Back is aimed largely at Mormons who have contact with gay youth -- whether they realize that or not. Given the way that Church service works in Mormon culture, that's pretty much all active adults over time.

I don't think that No Going Back has much to say to gay Mormon teens. For one thing, I don't really offer much on how to live as a gay Mormon. You're completely right that a novel about that would have to be a novel about an adult character. Teenagers aren't even really qualified to understand the challenges, let alone think realistically about potential solutions. The only positive thing I can see for gay Mormon youth reading this is a sense that they're not alone.

However, it would be my hope that reading No Going Back would change how adult Mormons think and act, both among themselves and in their dealings with youth. At the very least, I'd think that anyone who had read No Going Back would have to be more conscious of the possibility that someone in their priests quorum or seminary class or scout troop might be experiencing homosexual feelings. I'd also hope that they might realize other things about what that experience is like, such as the fact that you can be gay and still want to be a faithful Latter-day Saint, and that being gay often is more about emotional attachments than it is about physical desire.

Most of all, I think I'd want them to see that such kids are *normal*. Beyond the fact that as a writer I wanted to stay as close to the point of view of my teenage characters as I could, this I think is one of the reasons why I chose to use a juvenile mindset and writing style: so that in reading about Paul and Chad and the others, adult readers might see in them their own teen children and those children's friends. Whether it succeeded or not is a matter for the reader to decide, but that was my intent.

Jonathan Langford said...

Another thought:

I agree that the novel presents a rationale that puts same-sex relationships on an inherently inferior plane to heterosexual relationships -- and that sees homosexuality itself as something that's in some ways a false identity. I don't think there's any other way to view it in orthodox Mormon thinking.

I will point out that within the novel, this is presented as a matter of faith, not observation: Paul accepts that if Mormon doctrine is so, this must be the case, but he can't really understand his own feelings this way. Similarly, while believing that same-sex marriage is a dead end (because of his understanding of Mormon doctrine), Richard also acknowledges that there seems to be real love and devotion among the same-sex couples he knows. This, it seems to me, is the paradox that orthodox believing Mormons must embrace, if they are to (a) accept Mormon doctrine as it is currently taught, and (b) also accept the reality of the world around them. It's also a critical necessity in order to exercise compassion, in my opinion.

In short, while the characters in the novel believe this to be the case, it's not something that the novel necessarily shows to be the case. In the end, the main hope for Paul (as for the rest of us when all is said and done) lies in (a) promises that things can turn out well for him, without a clear sense of what that will necessarily mean, and (b) the comfort of those who are most important to him -- those lifelines you mentioned.

It's my personal belief that there is no single broad path forward that applies equally to all gay Mormons: not therapy, not marriage, not simple endurance -- nor a change in Church teachings which, if it comes at all, certainly isn't something I'm in a position to know. Individual gay Mormons have experienced answers that work for them, but none of these seem to be universally applicable to everyone. Hence the importance of those few sources of comfort that can be universally applicable (if we as fallen mortals are capable of applying them): that is, comfort from others and comfort from God. In the end, I couldn't find anything more real than that to include as potential answers for Paul, going forward.

C. L. Hanson said...

Let me clarify:

Marriage has changed. A few hundred years ago, marriage was fundamentally an owner-property relationship. Naturally, in that context, gay marriage made no sense. Does a farmer own another farmer? Does a cow own anther cow? Duh, no!

Marriage has evolved, though, and has come to be more a partnership based on [romantic, sexual] love and commitment. So now pressuring people into mixed-orientation-marriages is the one that makes no sense. Marry a woman when my soul-mate is a man? Duh, no!

Modern proponents of "traditional" marriage (like Langford), tend to portray marriage in the old-fashioned owner-property model. In his book, marriage is like a guy owning a dog. Of course a guy appreciates the dog's devotion, but he certainly isn't expected to return that devotion at the same level or respect the dog as though it were human. Dogs are just different from people -- that the way God made 'em! And some guys don't even like dogs, and that's OK, too. But (duh!) a guy and another guy can't have the same kind of relationship as guys have with dogs!

You have focused on the the fact that Langford portrays gay male relationships as necessarily fleeting and sexual. You've just taken for granted his portrait of [striaght] marriage must be more noble since, in his world, [straight] marriage is a duty and is essentially chaste. But the reality is that -- for straight people in a marriage that's a loving partnership -- the guy-and-his-dog portrait of marriage is every bit as offensive as his portrait of gay relationships. The trouble is that the spectre of *gasp* evil, tempting gay sex! looms so large that it blinds you to the rest of the picture.

alan said...

In short, while the characters in the novel believe this to be the case [that is, gay relationships ultimately lead to unhappiness], it's not something that the novel necessarily shows to be the case. [...]This...is the paradox that orthodox believing Mormons must embrace, if they are to (a) accept Mormon doctrine as it is currently taught, and (b) also accept the reality of the world around them.

[...]Most of all, I think I'd want them [adult LDS] to see that such kids are *normal*.

I think you are working against yourself. Back in the 1950s and even today in some places, people thought that the illness of the homosexual was that he took pleasure in the sexual acts that he did, but as long as he was remorseful (like Paul is), there was hope. If the homosexual was not remorseful, but actually happy and unrepentant and spoke of things like "love" (AKA emotional attachment) then people thought he was lost, so ill that he was beyond hope.

What was once an illness that fell squarely on the shoulders of the homosexual has become a "paradox" that Mormons must endure as they (a) admit emotional attachment between gays is similar to theirs and (b) watch their youth walk out the door over this issue. There's a word for this paradox: it's called homophobia. Mormonism has an unfortunate bout of it because of how the theology is wrapped up in gender complementarity, but I also think that if you look at the history carefully, you'll find gender complementarity is wrapped up in homophobia. Many Mormons (like Dean Byrd and the like) fight for homosexuality to continue to be viewed as an illness so that Mormonism needn't endure this paradox (but also because they sincerely believe it to be an illness); many church leaders consider "same-gender attraction" to be a disability for the same reasons.

The trouble with "normal" is that while you portray Paul as just like "every other teenager," you give him this impossible conundrum, a paradox that cannot be resolved, an "illness" that "disables" him from being happy in the ways his peers take for granted. Thus, Paul is not "normal." In my novel Ockham's Razor, this paradox comes up in a pivotal sex scene when Micah releases that Brendan isn't connecting with him in a "happy" way, but in a needful way, to resolve a paradox through sex (not that Micah isn't also needful in his own ways). But so long as homosexual intimacy is portrayed this way, as needful, unrighteous, unhappy, then characters like Paul and gay people will be broken in the minds of Mormons. The only reason I'm not guilty of this is because my intended audience is not orthodox Mormons.

J G-W said...

Jonathan - the gay male developmental/awareness model you describe pretty much fit for me. I first became aware of my feelings around age 11/12 (1974-75). First acknowledged I was probably gay around 14 (1977), then engaged in a long process of submerging it/trying to overcome it, until I finally accepted it at the age of 25 (1988).

It was at that age -- after coming out -- that I could finally explore my options as far as celibacy, (heterosexual) marriage, or same-sex relationships. And I did explore... I did date women. I spent time in a Roman Catholic monastery exploring celibacy as a life path. I finally -- at the end of a process that included fasting and prayerful discernment -- opened myself to the possibility of a relationship with a man.

Of course, I almost didn't make it to that point. I probably would have committed suicide at the age of 21, between my junior and senior years at BYU, if it hadn't been for a mixture of divine providence and the friendship of an Episcopal priest neighbor.

I agree with you that it is important to help youth actually make it to that point of finding their own faith/testimony and relationship with God. We need that in order to make the big decisions as whole human beings. I think one of the great problems for many gay men and lesbians -- and a problem for many segments of the gay community -- is that we divorce ourselves from our spirituality because we assume that spirituality/religion is part of the problem. We see it as an obstacle to wholeness, so we jettison it... Only to discover down the road that we still don't really know who we are.

My advice to most gay Mormon teens would probably be the same as yours... Hang in there, build your faith and your relationship with God, go on a mission. Learn self-control. Save the big decisions about relationships until you are mature enough to make such decisions. BUT also know that you are good, you are OK, you are "normal." There's nothing wrong with you; nothing flawed in your creation; nothing sinful about your capacity to love nor about whom you are naturally drawn to in that love.

J G-W said...

Jonathan - I agree that your novel leaves open the possibility that same-sex relationships are just as happy and fulfilling, and that the love between two people of the same sex is just as real and powerful as the love between a man and a woman.

But Paul's mother and his bishop clearly don't believe that. Paul's mother gives up on PFLAG, because she believes that if she gives encouragement to her son to enter into a relationship with a man that the end result would be to make him "miserable" -- your words, or, rather, "her" thoughts in the novel. Paul's bishop believes that legal, same-sex marriage must be defeated for gays' own good, because they don't realize that that lifestyle will make them unhappy.

This is consistent with the Mormon (and broadly Christian) understanding of sin. Sin makes us unhappy. Sin is always a Faustian pact: the Devil promises us something shiny and cool, and then when we take it, it turns out to be rotten and miserable. But by the time we realize we've been duped, the Devil then uses our sense of shame and inadequacy to keep us feeling trapped -- to keep us feeling that we have no choice anymore, that it's too late, etc.

But as it turns out, what many gay folks have discovered is that the "temptation," the "Devil's pact" so to speak, was not committing to love another person. It was believing that we are somehow less than, that we are inferior, that we can't be happy like everyone else, that we don't deserve love and relationship just like everyone else. We find that when we commit to love -- really commit -- that we find exactly what heterosexuals find when they commit to love. Beauty, joy, mutuality, comfort and companionship, someone to help us along the way, someone to help us grow in faith and hope and love... It turns out not to be some rotten misery bomb, but this hidden treasure...

And at least what I've found is that my relationship with my husband, far from driving me away from God -- which sin inevitably does -- has helped me to see God more clearly. As I love my husband, I find new ways to demonstrate my love for God.

That result is not what most -- dare I say, any? -- conservative, orthodox Mormons expect from a same-sex relationship. Certainly there are gay relationships that end miserably, just as there are straight relationships that end miserably. But when you have proof that same-sex couples can achieve relationships that are every bit as remarkable and loving as the best heterosexual relationships, it throws a wrench into the model of same-sex relationships that insists they are a counterfeit and a sin. If that is true, we should not see proof of gay folks thriving in such relationships.

If you want to hold to the orthodox position on homosexuality, you could retreat to a position that the misery won't be visible till the next life... I see people increasingly taking that position. But I'm not convinced that retreating completely to the realm of the otherworldly and the unknowable doesn't create more theological problems than it solves...

Your novel, by focusing on one year in the life of a 15-year-old, certainly addresses issues of faith and community that need to be addressed. But I think you've put off addressing key issues that are really at the heart of the distress so many are experiencing about this issue within the Church.

J G-W said...

C.L. - I agree with your critique of marriage. I agree that one reason conventional marital expectations can be so toxic is because of the history in our culture of marriage being a form of male ownership of women... I won't argue that point with you; I'm aware of the history.

I've had wonderful conversations with heterosexual friends who have described how the greatest obstacle to experiencing real love and happiness within their relationships was the burden of conventions and expectations and an "image" of marriage that made it difficult to relate to each other on a more genuine level. I've had heterosexual friends tell me they envied me being gay, because being gay meant I had to discover what a relationship really was, what it really meant to me, without the toxic burden of the kinds of expectations they've had to deal with.

(I'd say we have other toxic burdens we have to deal with, but... OK.)

I saw the relationship between Richard and Sandy in the novel as an illustration of that problem, and the key point in their relationship was the moment when Richard realized he needed to stop "being a husband" (and "being a bishop" for that matter) and just listen -- really listen! -- to his wife...

I think this is always the crux of it... We can't delete history; we can't pretend that the cultural context doesn't influence us. But we can fight to find ways to be genuine with each other... I'm not sure what more you can do than that. I found that message in the novel refreshing...

J G-W said...

Alan, I basically agree with your point here.

Though actually, I think the paradox boils down to a question of authority.

Mormons have always had to wrestle with the problem of what in the teaching of a religious leader is "infallible," and what simply reflects the biases of the culture in which that religious leader -- just like everyone else -- lives.

Actually, every religion has to wrestle with that.

So an orthodox Mormon can happily acknowledge that same-sex relationships can be happy and loving -- in fact, every bit as happy and loving as a straight relationship. And he or she still has to affirm the Church as the means through which truth is discerned and salvation achieved. And because the Church's official position right now is that you can't be in a same-sex relationship and be a member of the Church, the knowledge that gay folks are normal, happy and loving creates cognitive dissonance.

This isn't a problem ordinary Mormons in the pews can solve, though. It's something our leaders, increasingly, will have to wrestle with. And we're seeing evidence that they are... If only in this most recent statement by President Uchtdorf.

alan said...

Though actually, I think the paradox boils down to a question of authority.

Putting it on church leaders' shoulders doesn't help much, because the leaders are basically representatives of the people (I know they're considered more than this, but they won't ask for revelation to resolve a "paradox" until Mormons as whole are asking for it).

Here's what I was trying to point out, though. Jonathan seems interested in educating his fellow Mormons that homosexuality is not just about sex, but also love -- in order for people to realize that Paul and gay kids are "normal." But what I'm saying is that conservative families have been hearing this from their gay children for decades. "It's not just about sex!" Clearly, being in the know is not the crux of the matter; rather, one's interpretation of gay love is.

Jonathan does nothing to better this interpretation not because Paul makes the choices he does, but because his choices are underpinned by interpretations of gay love as lesser than hetero love. Jonathan says: "There's no other way to look at it from an orthodox perspective... it's a paradox." But doesn't a person choose to see gay love as lesser than hetero love? Doesn't this choice resolve the paradox? It's encouraging that people see gay love as the "same as" and "lesser than" at the same time, because this self-inflicted paradox is a route to questioning one's internalized homophobia. But most Mormons (including, it seems, Langford) seem content with blaming homosexuality for the paradox, and then resolving it by saying "gay love is lesser than hetero love, and there's no other way to look at from an orthodox Mormon perspective."

J G-W said...

Alan - Again, I basically agree with your points -- both of them.

Yes, the leaders will ask the questions and wrestle with this because ordinary Mormons in the pew are asking the questions and wrestling with this. However, at the same time, the Mormon understanding of priesthood keys and authority means that this particular problem can't be resolved by anybody but the prophet. So until that happens, the ordinary Mormon in the pew will have to learn to live with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance/paradox around this issue.

And I agree with your other point... The cognitive dissonance between traditional beliefs about homosexuality and the reality as folks are encountering it as more and more of us come out of the closet has already driven a lot of change... And it will yet drive more change, I think, before this is all through...

And your point about Jonathan's novel was, well, my main point of criticism of No Going Back.

I guess I'm curious about your take on my criticism of your novel... From my point of view, both novels taken side by side reflect quite well the (from my perspective tragic) bifurcation of the gay Mormon community into those who have rejected their faith vs. those who have rejected their gayness...

alan said...

I guess I'm curious about your take on my criticism of your novel...

I agree with the criticism of my novel as representing a rejection of faith (and to the extent that Brendan remains Mormon, it doesn't seem all that "genuine"), but your idea that Brendan and Micah kind of morph together to represent a stronger character that queers Mormon theology (in the way that say, you have) doesn't seem realistic of people their age. Maybe it can be. I mean, maybe there are young LDS people who've resolved the paradox -- but what then of their cognitive dissonance with their culture? Personally, I can resolve it, but at the expense of not seeing the prophet as a prophet. As an "outsider," the difficult task I'm currently undertaking (with my Dialogue essay) is writing in way that both respects and questions church leaders on this matter, and I do this with an historical framing. But then that makes me one of those "so-called intellectuals" Boyd Packer warns about.

What's different about my novel than Jonathan's is that his continues along the line of "there is no struggle for which the Gospel is not adequate," whereas mine points to truths outside the Gospel, even if Micah and Brendan aren't the best at implementing them. For example, Micah's "pop psychology Buddhism" (as you described it) scares Brendan, but if you can imagine a full-fledged Buddhist and a full-fledged Mormon in conversation, some progress could be made on this issue, which is what I would hope those scenes point to. I found Langford's depiction of the GSA, on the other hand, to be spiritually vacuous, with the exception of Paul who was ultimately the only good guy -- where everyone else was basically good, but just "didn't understand."

Gay/lesbian culture has had an absence of religion, but I believe only because most religious cultures have historically been homophobic. There is a rise of gay-friendly religion, but if you notice, Mormon leaders do not address these faiths.

Jonathan Langford said...

On another topic: A while back in another post, you said that reading No Going Back had prompted you to think about the importance of touch and human contact. I'd be interested if you have thoughts about this topic as it comes up in the book, and how the role it plays there does or doesn't reflect what you've found to be true in reality.

J G-W said...

Jonathan, I was particularly intrigued by the scene in the novel where the GSA decides to have a hug-fest, and the way you used that scene to explore the relationship between touch, emotion, relationship/relatedness, and sexuality.

I did very much relate to the idea of there being almost a kind "electricity" -- especially when you touch/are touched by someone that you feel a certain kind of connection to.

I also liked the part where Paul hugs this guy and begins to feel protective of him, and connected to him, even without really knowing much about him...

I agree that touch does communicate powerful stuff, non-verbally and at a very, very profound level. And the need to connect through touch is very intense. And of course, I'm not just talking about sexual touch -- though that is an important form of touch. But just plain old-fashioned hugs, hand-holding, putting an arm around someone's shoulder, patting someone on the back or the head, massaging someone's neck -- all very powerful stuff. And when we're denied some of those basic forms of touch, it hurts at some very deep level. I think being human and connecting in a human way means to need touch and to connect through touch.

That's what I took away from your book as far as touch is concerned, and yes, it did resonate with me very much.

MoHoHawaii said...

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?)

Did she really have to move to Utah? This really gets to the point. We can hem and haw all we want (it's called having a "nuanced position" in the Bloggernacle), but this is the bottom line. Everybody knows that a standard Mormon ward, especially in Utah or Idaho, is a toxic environment for gay youth. Did she really have to move to Utah? Indeed.

We are failing our gay youth. We teach them that their most tender, vulnerable feelings-- their emerging yearnings for love and intimacy and a place in the world-- are Satanic "tendencies" that can be "overcome" by prayer and repentance. And, tragically, we tell them this at exactly the most precarious stage of adolescent development, the stage at the cusp of young adulthood when they are as uncertain about general issues of life and love as they will ever be.

John, one of the most significant parts of your own personal story is the fact that divine inspiration told you to leave the LDS Church when you were young, and by all accounts that inspiration came in the nick of time and saved your life. Now you are back-- but here is the critical part-- you came back as a middle-aged man whose sense of self was fully defined. You came back with love in your life, with a beautiful man at your side. Only in midlife could you possess the kind of independence of thought that allows you to reintegrate into the Mormon religious context and reinterpret its message in a way that uplifts your soul rather than crushes it. No fifteen year old would be capable of doing this!

The insight that you have achieved, the "nuance" if you will, is inaccessible to a fifteen-year-old youth. It's simply an issue of developmental stage. That fifteen year old in the pew hears an entirely different message when Elder Packer speaks of "overcoming" innate "tendencies." That young person hears, "I am evil. I am the cause of pain and shame to my parents. I shouldn't be here. I should be dead." And, as we know, far too many of those young gay people sitting in those pews don't survive. They don't make it to middle age, as we have, where they would have the luxury of nuance.

We're hearing a lot of discussion these days about whether religious leaders are responsible for what they say over the pulpit. What is missing in this discussion is the vast difference between adult ears and adolescent ears. They don't hear the same things. Children and adolescents are very skilled at picking up the subtext, which is always harsher in the LDS context than the actual spoken words. Yet, adolescents are not skilled at interpretation or nuance. As a result, they are at risk in ways that adults simply are not. It's not just the words, it's the words, plus the unspoken cultural attitudes, plus the immaturity of the audience that causes the damage. Speakers, like President Packer, should know this.

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?

We're setting our young people up for something much worse than loss of faith. While Langford's book may be useful in prying open the eyes of the most orthodox on this issue, in the end its prescription for gay LDS youth is deadly. I pray that his young readers survive it.

J G-W said...

Mohohawaii - Have you read the book? If you haven't, I'd really be interested in discussing it with you after you have.

I was actually a bit worried about the end of the book. It has Paul and his mother moving to Utah, and Paul going deep into the closet. He continues to stay in touch with his friend Chad -- by mail. That's his only context in which he is really "out of the closet" in any way. Paul is on meds for depression, though the epilogue has him eventually coming off the medications -- implying a happy ending. At face value, though, that seemed like a formula for disaster to me...

A major theme in the book is that there simply aren't safe places for gay Mormon youth to be out of the closet -- which they need to be able to do. From the perspective presented in the novel, GSA's are gay friendly, but don't respect religious values. LDS wards obviously uphold the religious values, but are hostile to gays. Gay Mormon youth are essentially caught in the crossfire. In light of Langford's seeming concession that it is important for gay Mormon youth to be able to be open about their sexual orientation, I was a bit surprised that he would end the novel with the main character completely alienated on this score, and attempt to turn that into a happy ending...

I agree, this is a vulnerable and sensitive age. But I also think that youth can also be extremely resilient if they have the right kind of support. And different youth can have very different needs.

You're right that I wasn't able to integrate faith and sexuality in the way I have until I was quite a bit older. But then, I grew up in a different world than the world youth are growing up in today. The kinds of information that are available to youth today simply weren't available to folks of our generation.

So is it impossible that gay youth today could integrate this stuff more quickly and at a younger age? I see evidence not only that they can, but they are...

MoHoHawaii said...

I haven't read Langford's book, only reviews by you and Chanson.

I absolutely agree with your point that gay LDS youth have more access to information and support (especially via the Internet) than you and I did when we were in their situation, but I see more polarization than integration as a result of that information.

In fact, the biggest effect of access to more information is that gay people are leaving the Church at younger ages than they used to. I'm sure this saves many lives, but it's not good for the health and vitality of the Church, and it's not easy on the people who painfully sever ties with the community that has raised them.

Also, for all the new access to information, we're not seeing a lot of progress in terms of healing divisions in families. Families and communities are as divided as ever on this issue, thanks to the disaster that was the Church's outsized involvement in Prop. 8.

And we're not seeing much progress toward providing fellowship to communion for gay people who want to live their lives within the Mormon social context. Celibacy works in the long run for almost no one, but it's all the Church has to offer.

Like you, I'm hopeful that the Church will eventually come around on this issue. Change is in the air, if for no other reason than the dissatisfaction over gay issues that about half of all younger LDS people feel. In the post-Prop. 8 environment the Church is hemorrhaging members over this issue, especially younger people. That doesn't go unnoticed by the leadership.

I think the weakness of the ending in Langford's novel is a true reflection of the lack of options available in the current LDS context. Where is Langford's protagonist at age 40? Alone in his apartment with his cat?

If you can come up with a healthier option for gay youth than leaving the Church, I'd love to hear it.

DCHARRISON said...

I reviewed the book for Dialogue, and had a really positive experience with it. The cover art aside (sorry, Jonathan, I can’t help myself), I found the book an honest and poignant point-in-time / slice-of-life story. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than Paul’s story — and, then, only one year of Paul’s much longer story. So I’m not entirely comfortable holding the story to a standard that would necessarily force it away from what it is, fundamentally.

J G-W said...

DC - You can certainly read it at that level, though there's an implied trajectory in the novel...

But I agree with your qualifiers: honest and poignant. I think the novel can be read and appreciated by readers with very different points of view as an accurate portrait of what life can be like for someone in Paul's situation...

MoHoHawaii said...

I hope I didn't offend you with my last comment. My question about whether gay youth can remain in the Church without spiritual harm to themselves wasn't rhetorical. It's a question I actively struggle with. You say that you see evidence that integration is possible for these young people. I haven't seen that. For example, I can't find any celibate gay Mormons above age 40 (except a handful who left the Church as young people and returned to activity later in life).

So, I just wanted to say that I'm not so much arguing a position here as asking a sincere question whose answer I do not know.

J G-W said...

No, I wasn't offended. I am concerned about this too.

In my last trip to Salt Lake, and in some recent email communications I've made the acquaintance of gay Mormons in their early 20's, who have testimonies of the gospel as I do, and who are very self-aware in terms of their sexuality. The two young men I have in mind are solid... I'm not concerned about their emotional or spiritual well-being. I feel like they are, in many ways, 20 years ahead of me.

So I think the tides of history can have an impact on our individual journeys... The fact that you and I grappled with this in a different era, with different social awarenesses, and with much less information makes a huge difference.

At the same time, the recent suicides draw our attention to the fact that not everyone receives the same benefit from a heightened awareness around these issues.