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.