Saturday, June 30, 2012

Far Between and Many Miles to Go

Kendall Wilcox is a gay Mormon who has been producing a documentary that asks the question: What does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon?  One of the most remarkable aspects of this documentary is its very open-ended approach to this question.  On the Far Between website, Kendall has posted dozens of interviews with gay and bisexual Mormons, each of whom is invited to answer the question, "What does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon?"  Kendall has gone out of his way to include folks with dramatically different perspectives, from individuals who have remained active in the LDS Church and have chosen to marry a member of the opposite sex, to those who have embraced their homosexuality and have definitively cut their ties to the Church, and many others in between.  And the results, as they are unfolding on the web site are incredibly moving and quite amazing.

Kendall's achievement so far is that much more remarkable, when you consider the difficulty of even finding the right language to ask the central question of the film.  Every element of that question is disputed.  Am I "homosexual" or "same-sex-attracted (SSA)" or "gay"?  Can I even be considered "Mormon" if I am excommunicated or have resigned from the Church?  Is a "Mormon" defined culturally, or in terms of the beliefs a person holds, or ecclesiastically in terms of membership status?  If you ask the question, "What does it mean to be gay and Mormon?" you will alienate a major segment of the community that Kendall was trying to reach, because they reject the term "gay."  If you ask the question, "What does it mean to be SSA and Mormon?" you alienate a different major segment.  So in the actual interviews, Kendall has opted for the question: "What does it mean to be homosexual and Mormon?" (using a term that almost no one relates to), with a follow-up clarification of "however you choose to define any part of that question."

One of the themes that emerges in almost all of the interviews is that that intersection of Mormon-ness (however defined) and homosexuality (however defined!) creates a profound emotional/social/spiritual crisis for those who find themselves there.  (I love that the Far Between logo consists of two barely intersecting circles!)  The stories are painful, precisely because -- at least at first -- it seems literally almost impossible to bring those things together.  The stories are moving because they demonstrate human resiliency in the ways individuals navigate this intersection.  Collectively, a very interesting picture begins to emerge as you see the myriad of different solutions to the problem of being homosexual/gay/SSA and Mormon that people find.

And for me, this speaks volumes to Kendall's achievement as the film's producer.  Kendall is both "homosexual" and "Mormon," so he has (one presumes) experienced something of the anguish that is so evident in the stories of the many folks he's interviewed.  Kendall himself is fairly open about the fact that the urgency of finding a very personal resolution to the contradictions is what drives this project.  This film is his way of going forward, his way of trying to figure out what to make of all this.  But I think Kendall's project will succeed where other similar projects have failed, because of the extraordinary patience with which Kendall pursues this.  He hasn't, as far as I can tell, leaped to any conclusions.  He's not pushing any sort of agenda, apart from bringing as many different voices as possible into the discussion.  His openness is his agenda.

I hope Ty Mansfield doesn't mind my sharing the fact that the evening before Kendall was scheduled to arrive at his home for an interview with him and his wife, I got an urgent call from him, asking me to tell him everything I knew about Kendall Wilcox.  He was understandably nervous about how his marriage might be portrayed in this kind of documentary.  There are risks involved in sharing, especially when you're not sure of the agenda of the person you're sharing with.  As far as I can tell from the interviews that have been posted, Kendall has done a good job of nurturing the kind of trust that is necessary for something like this to unfold.  Part I of his interview with Ty was posted here.

A film of this nature has the virtue of attracting anyone who wishes to be heard -- or the vice of attracting anyone who wants a soapbox or a bully pulpit.  Kendall has done a remarkable job of framing each story as "a" story, one angle, one perspective, on a multifaceted and complex problem.  So one senses that the film will not, in the end, validate any one path over another.  And therefore the final product has the potential of alienating many and pleasing none.  Though it also has the potential of illuminating the issues more profoundly than any other treatment of this subject before ever possibly could.  And that latter potential is worth all the risks of engaging in this kind of project.

I had a fuller appreciation of the risks and the potential of this project when yesterday I finally watched part II of Kendall's interview with Wilum.  I am now embarrassed to admit that it took me a long time to get around to actually listening to the interviews with Wilum, because one look at the images and I thought I knew everything I needed to know about him: "Angry gay ex-Mormon."  My prejudice couldn't have been more misleading.  Every assumption I made about him was completely wrong.  (Except the one about him being gay!)

Will folks look at this film project in its entirety, and do the same thing I did in relation to Wilum's interview?  Will people just assume they know everything they need to know about a film that asks a hotly contested question like "What does it mean to be both homosexual and Mormon?"  Many people most assuredly will...  But I think, assuming the project is successfully brought to completion, the end product will stand the test of time.

Part I of my own interview with Kendall was recently posted here.  The interview was conducted just after the closing devotional held at the Kirtland, OH Affirmation convention last September.  I was still feeling a bit buzzed from the spiritual high I had experienced that morning, first in the testimony meeting and then in the devotional that came right after.  I remember feeling a bit scattered during the interview itself, though actually seeing it, I look and sound less incoherent than I remember! 

Watching it now, seeing my story intersected with the very different stories of so many others, I am left both with a sense of gratitude and of vulnerability.  I have a greater appreciation of, and hopefulness about how all of our stories seem to be unfolding toward some wonderful ending.  And I'm not just talking about the ending of this film project!


Neal said...

You did a great job, John!

alan said...

Wow, this is a great project that has a lot of potential -- certainly because of the medium of online video. Do you know whether Wilcox will be incorporating the BYU It-Gets-Better
vids into the documentary?

The world is small. Wilum actually visited me a few years ago, brought to my apartment by a couple of missionaries after an initial meeting. I was surprised when I met him since he's not your typical Mormon. He and I bantered back and forth while the missionaries quietly listened.

The issues aside, the fact that the meeting was even taking place -- that there were these two straight teenage guys listening to two gay guys talk about gay issues in the Church -- was mind-boggling. Not at all what I expected of a Mormon missionary visit. That was when I first began to piece together how complex this issue is demographically, plus how much room there is for positive movement within a generation or less -- so long as people put in the effort to talk to one another.

Anyway, I'm sorry I've been a cynical commentator as of late, but we do all come at this from different angles and focus on different aspects. I also tend to play devil's advocate. Hope there's not still hard feelings.

JonJon said...

alan, Kendall produced the BYU It Gets Better videos and the plan is to incorporate some of those videos into the final product as well. He's interviewed well over 100 people and is gradually adding unedited versions of the interviews to the website to people have access to them before the film comes out.

Also, Wilum is a really fantastic individual. I love the story of you two talking gay stuff while the missionaries observed.

Really great write up, John. I too believe that Kendall's approach will do a lot to illuminate the issues more profoundly than what's been done before.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Jon, thanks for answering Alan's question about the "It Gets Better" videos... I actually had no idea if or how those were being worked into the final project.

John Gustav-Wrathall said...

Alan, if that's an apology, I accept it.