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?