Gay and/or Mormon: A Storyteller’s Perspective

Jonathan Langford (www.langfordwriter.com) is a freelance writer and editor who lives in western Wisconsin. His first novel, No Going Back, a 2009 Whitney Award finalist for best general fiction by an LDS author, describes a Mormon teenage boy’s struggle to remain faithful despite his homosexual feelings. Langford is also coauthor of the Latter-day Saint Family Encyclopedia, which was published by Thunder Bay Press in November 2010.

A little over a year ago, I became the published author of a novel about a Mormon teenagers with homosexual feelings who also honestly, sincerely wants to remain true to LDS teachings. It’s not a typical topic for a Mormon novel, partly because of the potential controversy, but also I think partly because it strikes so close to home for many of us, either in our own families or the families of people we know. Many of us in the Church can name people who have been torn by this very conflict.

A side effect of writing this book is that I’ve had the opportunity to hear many such real-life stories. I’ve spoken and exchanged emails with men and women who are making a go of heterosexual marriage despite feelings of attraction for their own gender, or who are trying to make a go of it. I’ve heard from others who attempted that path but found it impossible in the long run, and others who found it better never to try. One single sister in her 40s with whom I traded emails — in the closet to all her family — described the difficulty of remaining faithful at the cost of never seeking the kind of companionship her emotions desire. I’ve talked with family members of people who have left the Church over this issue, including some who have left the Church themselves and others who try to balance devotion to the gospel with loyalty and compassion toward those they love. I’ve heard from some gays who are bitter about the Church and its influence in their lives, and others with a firm testimony. Some hope for a change in the Church’s policy or see it in a more ambiguous light than I had previously considered. Some hope their feelings may change in this life, while others incline to the idea that this may simply be their particular cross to bear in mortality.

What all these stories demonstrate is that the dilemma of those who are caught between homosexual feelings and the desire to remain faithful to the gospel is a profound one. Nothing superficial or easily resolved could cause such genuine anguish and soul-searching among so many people. This is true on both sides. A friend told me once that in his experience, Mormons trying to live the Church’s standards aren’t well understood or accepted in the gay community. I’m not sure, though, that we always do a good job of accepting them in our LDS wards and families either. It’s not usually malice, in my opinion, but simple ignorance, borne in part of the fact that most of those who are dealing with this kind of challenge don’t talk about it much, at least not publicly.

Which brings me to my own book and how I think I’ve been changed as a result of writing it.

One of the primary purposes of literature is to help us understand other people by spending time imaginatively in their shoes. I find it troubling, from that perspective, that there are some places — like the experiences of those with homosexual feelings — where Mormon literature typically doesn’t go. How can we exercise compassion for others if we don’t allow ourselves to tell or listen to their experiences? How confident can those “others” be that there’s a place for them in our wards and families if their struggles aren’t represented in the stories we read and talk about?

I take great comfort in the fact that I don’t have to judge other people’s lives and choices. While sustaining the Church and its teachings, it’s not my job to figure out just what those teachings require of anyone except me. What I am called on to do — what all of us are required to do, if I understand Mosiah 18 correctly — is to be emotionally present in the face of the trials my brothers and sisters face, both inside and outside the Church.

For me, as I think for many of us, reading and writing stories is part of that. I’ll never get rich off the royalties from No Going Back — heck, it’s likely that I’ll never make back the cost of gift copies to family, friends, and manuscript readers — but I think I’m a better and more compassionate person for having written it. And I’ve had indications that a few readers have felt less alone from reading the book, or thought the story helped them understand better a challenging dimension of other people’s lives. That, I suppose, is reward enough for me.

19 thoughts on “Gay and/or Mormon: A Storyteller’s Perspective

  1. “What I am called on to do — what all of us are required to do, if I understand Mosiah 18 correctly — is to be emotionally present in the face of the trials my brothers and sisters face, both inside and outside the Church.”

    Beautifully said. I agree, also, that it is through stories that we can better relate and/or understand the experience of others, placing us in a better position to be emotionally present when we are needed.

    Thank you for such a thoughtful, engaging post.

  2. I agree–it’s taken me a long time to arrive at a place where I can let go of my need to judge others (stemming, I think, from insecurities that make me think that someone else’s choice invalidates mine unless it’s clearly wrong) to a place where I’m getting better at recognizing that the only person I’m qualified to judge is myself. I love the idea that it *is* possible to be fully present for–and love–others whose positions we may not be comfortable with.

    And thank you for being brave enough to write the book that you did–I think you’re right that we need those kind of stories.

  3. Jonathan – thanks for this wonderful post – for being brave – and for writing with compassion. I agree with you. How can we fulfill our calling to mourn and comfort when we are not willing to understand?

    “I take great comfort in the fact that I don’t have to judge other people’s lives and choices.”

    Would that we all lived this truth. Thank you.

  4. I long for the day when our gay brothers and sisters can share more freely their burdens that we may help them carry them. I have the hope that we are getting closer to that day.

  5. Thank you for this post. I hadn’t heard of your book, which sounds intriguing.

    I think you bring up some very important points about how we treat our members who struggle with same-sex attraction. You’ve given me food for thought.

  6. Thanks for the positive comments. Rosalyn, I think you’re right that we often tend to worry that other people’s choices may invalidate our own, and that makes us defensive — whatever our own choices have been. Catherine A., I have to admit that I don’t always live up to the notion of not judging other people’s lives and choices, but I think my own life is better when I do.

    In general, it’s my perception that as Church members, we do very well with compassion one-on-one, when we know the people involved. There’s a lot of genuine love, tolerance, and support out there. Unfortunately, the way things work, if there’s an adult or teenager in our wards or even our families who’s struggling with gay feelings, we usually won’t know about it.

    Tiffany W., I’m always glad to hear from people who might be interested in reading my book! (More information at my website. Available in print and electronic copies! Order now! While supplies last! Or something like that…) (Ahem, pardon for that commercial moment…)

    Honestly, the reaction to No Going Back has been illuminating in a lot of ways. Many members of the Church are reluctant to read it, because they worry that it will bash the Church, or because they are simply weary of the subject matter. Of course it *doesn’t* bash the Church, and I’ve tried to be fair to all sides while still presenting a believing perspective. And most LDS readers have liked the book, if they’re able to get past the semi-realistic language and teenage behavior (not at all bad by national standards, but more than you get in most Mormon fiction).

    I think that many of us are simply tired and a little heartsick thinking about this issue, not knowing what (if anything) we can do to make it better. And so we’re reluctant to read things that we’re afraid will just make us feel even more that way.

  7. I think these are really great thoughts; narrative/stories have an ability to help us see other people’s life experiences. I think sometimes people (especially Latter-day Saints) seem to think that the purpose of narrative is didactic. I’m sure that part of this comes from the fact that we often use narrative in our lessons as a way of teaching. But I have often seen people react to novels like this with a worry that they are didactic or ‘pushing an agenda’ or telling people what they ‘should do’ in a given situation. My husband has published a few personal essays about his experience as a gay man married to a woman, and we’ve received some very negative feedback from people that have assumed our purpose was didactic, when it was really just to let other people see things from our persepctive. Like you said, Mormons thought my husband was wrong to say he was gay and that getting married didn’t change that, and gay people think we’re totally wrong because he should not have married a woman. Anyways, like you said, the most important purpose of storytelling is to allow the listeners the opportunity to walk in someone else’s shoes. I think the only thing we can do is get more stories out there because each person is so different that we can’t just tell one story and assume it applies to everyone.

  8. “I think that many of us are simply tired and a little heartsick thinking about this issue, not knowing what (if anything) we can do to make it better.”

    That about sums it up for me. I am tired of feeling like this whole subject is in my face and trying to be shoved down my throat. One of my older kids came home the other day reporting that one of the kids in his high school had (upon learning that my son is Mormon)stated that “Mormons hate gays.” Sigh. Thankfully my son had the right answer–“No. We don’t.” As we discussed at the table that night, we don’t hate ANYBODY, gay, straight or otherwise. But that doesn’t mean that we agree with their lifestyle choices either. I guess I am tired of the implication that because we have a contrary opinion on this that it must necessarily follow that we hate people. We do not.

  9. Beautifully said, ALL of you. What a lovely discussion to be thinking about this morning.

    Johnathan, Foxy J, too, thank you for sharing your experiences. I live in a place where being LDS IS being an outsider of sorts (and often despised, though not in any way the same as your experiences) and thus have gained _some_ compassion and understanding of being “the other,”… and I look forward to reading your book. Especially so, because it seems to be both Christ centric, and non church bashing, AND helping to show and explain the very difficult decisions these brothers and sisters have to make in their lives. The courage that they use in their daily lives is magnificent, and as someone who has several friends who are, or have been, in similar experiences, this is definently a discussion we need to be having, and often.

    Thank you for your courage in speaking and sharing your experiences.

  10. In the genre romance reading community, a new subgenre of romance, gay romance (usually male/male written by straight women for straight women [insert objectification disclaimers here]) is currently the hot thing.

    I didn’t know, until I started seeing the flame wars, how narrow a lens “gay” is seen through. The sexual politics are just UNREAL, and that’s to someone not involved, sitting on the sidelines, and watching it all explode.

    So, FoxyJ, when you say:

    Like you said, Mormons thought my husband was wrong to say he was gay and that getting married didn’t change that, and gay people think we’re totally wrong because he should not have married a woman.

    I totally believe that, especially after having seen my bisexual friends get hammered from both sides of the GL aisle. Transgendered folk seem to be okay because they have made a black-or-white decision. (Straight people don’t quite know what to think and try to keep their mouths shut anyway.)

  11. Jonathan, thank you for this. And for your book (which I’ve read and recommend to adult readers). My brother is gay and the heartache he has endured is tragic. It makes me ill to think of all the mistreatment he has endured. I am ashamed of my lack of empathy. A book like yours could have saved our family twenty-three years of anguish. Bless you for your compassion.

  12. Jonathan, I think your book should be required reading for all bishops. Probably other leaders as well. We must both hold fast to core doctrine and show compassion, and your book does both very well.

  13. Jonathan– I went to a screening Wednesday night for the film, LEAD WITH LOVE Strengthening Families through the Coming Out Process. Our friends were one of the families featured in the movie. Although not targeted to a Mormon audience, they were very respectful of religion and the struggle many parents have with reconciling homosexual behaviors with religious beliefs.

    Their main points of LEAD are useful to any parent:

    L et your affection show
    E xpress your pain away from your child
    A void rejecting behaviors
    D o good before you feel good

    It was a very compassionate film and I can easily imagine a Mormon version of it. Perhaps this is the next project you’d like to tackle?

  14. Michelle,

    Thanks for the heads-up. A very thought-provoking and moving film. I agree that an LDS version of this would be useful — though I think there are others who would be much better qualified to make it.

    One of the barriers that stands in the way of providing effective support within the LDS community is an ongoing division as to what approach to take. It’s not a problem that we’ve figured out how to deal with effectively as a community, in my view.

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