Teaching a creative nonfiction class, a non-believer reflects on the lives of gay Mormons, gay teen suicide, and the ubiquitous Mormon missionaries.
“I try to focus on the positive,” Adam tells me. He leans forward in the chair as if his thin frame will add heft to a statement that his eyes don’t support. “I’m fine.”
Outside my office windows, the campus sits brown and empty. Late fall is the only time of year when northern Utah loses its beauty. Snow has not yet covered the mountains that rise all around us. Bereft of leaves and birds, they huddle closer to the ground.
“I know of someone you can talk to,” I say. “Any message you left would be safe.”
“Thanks,” he says, “but I’m fine.”
I return to his essay and read my comments asking him to “flesh things out” or “set the scene.” What I want to do is shake him, beg him to leave the valley, head for the coast. I want to hold him in my arms and tell him everything will be OK. But I don’t.
“I’m worried about you.”
He laughs nervously and shakes his head, then wipes his hands up and down his jeans.
I can’t tell him I am worried he will kill himself. I have said as much to other students, but I knew them better. Adam is buried in his down-filled coat, far away from me. I think about giving him the statistics for gay teen suicide, pointing out that Utah’s numbers are among the highest in the country, but figures wouldn’t matter in this conversation.
“OK,” I say and push my rolling office chair toward the bookcase, wishing I could keep on pushing it, out the window, into the sky, and up over these mountains with their 1,000-year-old juniper, to a place with more color, more moisture, more oxygen, a place where I could fill my lungs with more air and less God.
I am in the grocery store, standing in the checkout line. As I often do, I scan the headlines of the magazines to keep abreast of the Beautiful People’s latest misfortunes. The magazine rack is filled with the titles you would expect, though many of the covers are concealed behind squares of brown plastic. Instead of seeing the cover of Vogue, I read the title in white letters across the plastic sheet. Good Housekeeping is plainly visible, as is Family Circle. The concealed magazines are those that reveal women and their skin.
Just how much skin matters is a calculus I have worked out in the 10 years I have lived in this predominantly Mormon state. Bare shoulders and midriffs are unacceptable, but arms are OK. Legs must be covered from the knees up. It has been a decade since I have seen Elle or Self or Cosmo sitting out in plain view.
Years ago I taught a class on gender. I asked the students to read an issue of YM, a now-defunct teen girls’ magazine, and come to class prepared to talk about images of girlhood portrayed by the media. Before class, a student, Brent, came up to me.
“I just wanted to let you know that my wife made the magazine OK for me to look at.” He met my eyes.
“OK?” I asked. “OK, how?”
He uncurled the glossy magazine and showed me. His wife had lovingly taken her Sharpie to every page, every ad, every image and added cap sleeves, moderate necklines, and knee-length dresses. She had made it all acceptable. He had gone out to his garage and located his electric drill so that he could drill a hole in the cover, right through Britney Spears’ forehead.
My groceries move forward on the belt. As I have done many times before, I remove the plastic shields from every magazine in the aisle and leave a quivering sea of flesh in my wake.
Almost three out of five people in Utah are Mormon, but you can’t fully understand what that means until you live here. Knowing that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the fastest growing in the world with more than 14 million members, or watching Big Love or The Book of Mormon cannot prepare you. Even the intense media attention on Mormonism with the presidential campaigns of Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman barely touches the surface. Mormons themselves who come to Utah from other parts of the country make the distinction between Mormons and Utah Mormons. The climate is so different here. I will always be an outsider, but I have made a kind of peace with the state, hard-earned and uneasy, tested continually. It has been the stance of the Mormon Church on homosexuality that has most recently challenged any goodwill I have fostered over the years.
By some estimates, the church contributed 40 percent of the funds collected to pass Proposition 8, a 2008 ballot initiative ensuring that marriage in California would be limited to a man and a woman. When it passed, it overturned an earlier California Supreme Court ruling that had allowed same-sex couples to marry. Church members were encouraged to drive to California and campaign for Proposition 8 in person, to stand on corners with signs, to plaster the state with flyers. In the aftermath, the church found itself having to explain its actions, in particular how being against same-sex marriage was not the same thing as being against gays.
In official documents, church leaders don’t deny that same-sex “inclinations” might exist, though they are quick to point out that “gratefully . . . same-gender attraction did not exist in the pre-earth life and neither will it exist in the next life.” Gay Mormons can obtain every other reward promised to all good Mormons as long as they don’t act on their homosexuality. Gay Mormons are free to remain in the church, serve a mission, and conduct temple work as long as they can “control” their “inclinations.”
My partner, Michael, and I had lived in Utah only a few weeks when Ezekiel paid us his first visit. Close to 90 and crippled by arthritis, Ezekiel was our neighbor. It took him half an hour to walk the stretch of lawn between our houses. When he got to the concrete steps of our porch, he would fall to his knees, then climb the stairs to ring the bell. Upon learning we were nonbelievers, he arrived monthly, often bearing produce from his garden along with his testimony.
We tolerated his visits because we didn’t want to offend, but his persistence became annoying. “If you read the Book of Mormon with an open heart,” he would say, “then you will know it is true.” He described how often he prayed for us and the temple work his wife was doing in our name. Pamphlets were wedged in our door, paperback copies of Mormon literature left on our steps. Michael and I found ourselves hiding in our own house, asking, “Do you think he’s still there?” I threw the zucchini away, along with the books. I felt that accepting anything from him meant accepting all of it.
One day, perhaps not long after a student called me a “feminazi” on my teaching evaluations, I watched Ezekiel from the window as he walked toward our house. Instead of hiding, I opened the door before he could even ring, just as he picked up his body from the ground. “Come in,” I said. I helped him up the stairs. I could feel the thin bones in his arms, the push of his ribs. At any other moment, such fragility in a human being would have cast me back on my own mortality. Now his efforts just incensed me.
He collapsed into the couch, back rounded, breath coming quickly. I offered him water, the only beverage in the house I knew he was allowed to drink.
“Have you read the books I have given you?” he asked, taking the glass from me. His hand shook, water sloshing at the rim. “Have you prayed on them?”
Standing in front of his broken form, my urge was to throw my clothes off and stand naked in front of him. I wanted to be seen not as someone to convert but as someone who could refuse his version of salvation and still not be lost. While he continued to talk about Scripture, I imagined him shielding his gaze from my breasts.
Instead, clothed and standing, I screamed, “We don’t want to become Mormon!” He flinched, drew his hand to his chest, and was silent.
I invited a panel of gay, lesbian, and bi students to speak to one of my classes. The room was silent as the five panelists introduced themselves.
“I’m Steven,” the first panelist began, “and I identify as gay.”
“My name is Miranda,” the next said, “and I identify as bi.”
I sat to the side, pencil in hand, and realized I was holding my breath.
The panelists spoke for 45 minutes and then asked for questions. To my surprise, many hands went up. Toward the end of the period I posed a question: “Do you feel safe in Logan?”
The panelists all looked to Amanda, a white woman with long brown dreadlocks. She took a breath and began.
Amanda moved to Logan seven years ago with her partner. One afternoon, she was walking home from work when two men in a pickup truck pulled to the side of the road. They leapt from the truck and started beating her, yelling “dyke,” yelling “bitch.” Cars drove past, and drivers did nothing. The mountains watched in silence. In broad daylight, two blocks from the university, Amanda was beaten until she broke free and ran for home.
The next week when the men stopped Amanda, they had baseball bats.
Beaten nearly to death by repeated blows, Amanda stumbled home through the backyards of churchgoing folk. No one so much as cracked a window. No one called the police. Nobody asked her, blood dripping from her nose, her cheeks, if she was OK. When she told the police that her attackers had called “Dyke!” between blows, one officer responded, “Boys will be boys.”
Like many Christians, Mormons have a strong belief in eternity. Their belief in the next life shapes and controls their actions in this life, such that earthly existence becomes almost a means to an end.
For them, evidence of the world’s corruption is all around us, in those magazine covers, in R-rated movies, in men having sex with men. But in the celestial kingdom all will be restored. So, for example, if your child has Down syndrome in this life, then in the celestial kingdom her body will be made whole. If your child is gay, as long as he never acts on his homosexuality and remains a church member in good standing, in the celestial kingdom he will marry a woman and populate the world with spirit children. The promise of a whole body is compelling when you are taught that the body you have is impure.
Adam has chosen, for now, to stay in the church. When he told his father he was gay, his father stayed on script and said he loved him no matter what. He then described how the church could keep Adam strong. Life is short, he said, but eternity is long. They drove together in the car, trees flashing past them in the dusk. In the version I remember, Adam’s father then revealed his own struggles with impurity—porn addiction. Utah has the highest Internet pornography subscription rate in the country.
Adam ends his essay by saying he is stained, in hell. He can no longer breathe. My reassurance that his sexuality is both natural and acceptable cannot change the fact that when he sits in church, he is told that his feelings are immoral. He will be redeemed, he is told. He only has to sacrifice this one life.
The first time Mormon missionaries came to our door, I was surprised. Although there are more than 52,000 full-time Mormon missionaries in the world, serving in 350 missions worldwide, you don’t typically see them in Utah. And the local bishop had already visited to tell Michael and me that the fact that we weren’t married would lead us to certain ruin. Still, each and every baptism is worth seeking.
“Hello,” they said in unison. “I’m Elder Beck, and this is Elder Smith. What’s your name?”
“I’m not becoming Mormon.”
I had been baking, and flour dusted the front of my shirt. I could feel the bread dough drying between my fingers. The two men were young, 19 I would guess, with short-cropped hair and acne. They wore ill-fitting suits with padded shoulders and pants unevenly hemmed. One had black Reeboks, the other a pair of scuffed loafers.
“This sure is a nice house,” the Reebok wearer said. He was apparently the one who, according to the standard arrangement, had been in the field six months longer and therefore had seniority. “Can we come in?”
The fear I had nursed by my outsiderness had hardened into a shell of hatred.
“No,” I said, “you can’t.” The porch boards creaked under the shifting missionaries. “And another thing. I don’t know why you think you have the right to come to my house, interrupt whatever it is I am doing, and tell me what I should believe.”
The senior partner began to object, held his hands up.
“I don’t go to your house! I don’t tell you what I think you should believe. I don’t say I think you treat your women unfairly. I don’t try and persuade you to become a feminist or an environmentalist or a Democrat. I don’t try and convince you to spend less time baptizing the dead and more time engaging with the world of ideas.”
By now, the two Mormon missionaries, kids really, had backed away from the door. They had been trained not to engage.
“How dare you come to my house!” I yelled, aware my voice was shaking. “How dare you knock on my door!” My last words fell on their suited backs.
What causes two men to drive their pickup down the central street of a university campus yelling “Fag! Fag! Fag!”—something my 5-year-old son and I witnessed while we were walking through campus? I used to believe it was hatred, undiluted rage. But I have lived here long enough to understand the power of fear. Such behavior, I imagine, begins in the grocery store where images of bodies are concealed and sexuality is contained. It begins at the kitchen table where your father cracks gay jokes. It is furthered at school where teachers allow kids to call each other fag. It grows into a hot flame in the church pew where you are told that the door to eternity is narrow and policed.
I also understand the origins of hatred because of how brightly my own anger glowed in the first few years I lived here. I understand how fear suffocates any possibility of conversation. At the moment I slammed the door on the backs of the two missionaries, I didn’t feel vindicated; I felt empty. It would take several years for me to admit this sadness, my complicity in an us-them dichotomy.
A few years ago, a student in my creative nonfiction class wrote about her bulimia, the way she struggled to hide her vomiting from her sister missionaries. Linda was serving her two-year mission in Brazil, knocking on doors and bearing her testimony. She described the heat and the twisting vegetation. She described the days of rejection, doors slammed in her face, curses flung from windows. She took us into the stifling bathroom, where she purged every bite of apple, every piece of bread. With her, we ran circles on the tiny balcony of her apartment above the jungle to burn any calories that might remain. And when she was sent home a year early from her mission, we, too, could not meet the eyes of her family at the airport.
As a teenager, I too suffered from an eating disorder. That Linda was a missionary mattered less to me than the familiar battle she had fought with her own flesh. For once, it didn’t matter what she or I did with our Sundays. This realization didn’t mean I sanctioned the Mormon Church’s enormous missionary undertaking or its stance on homosexuality. It didn’t mean I could read the local newspaper without anger. Rather, it was just one of many moments over the years when I realized that the church and the people who populate it aren’t the same thing.
Brandon was in the same creative writing class as Adam. Like Adam, he is gay. Unlike Adam, he has left the church. He wrote about being noosed with a rope and dragged by the neck around his high school’s auditorium stage because his peers suspected his sexuality.
The church’s approach to dealing with gay Mormons is to reprogram them. Evergreen International helps with that. Though not officially a part of the church, Evergreen acts in “harmony” with it. As the group proclaims on its website, “If you want to diminish your same-gender attractions and avoid homosexual behavior, there is a way out.” Evergreen puts gay Mormons in touch with therapists who use reparative therapy and reorientation therapy to “diminish” same-sex attraction and help these individuals, many of whom are already married, become “clean.”
The essay Brandon wrote for the workshop that fall was about going on a mission and realizing he was gay. In it, he details a sexual encounter with another man. At the time, he was still trying to go to church every Sunday, and much of the essay was about his inability to live a double life.
And there we sat on a fall afternoon in a state that is overwhelmingly Mormon, only a few months after the passage of the heavily church-funded Proposition 8. Our classroom was small, so the semicircle we formed with our desks was tight. We each held a copy of Brandon’s essay in our hands. The night before, we had all read his lines at home. The sex scene was explicit, charged with an underlying self-hatred. In his writing, Brandon did not flinch from the oral sex, even though, in class, I could feel his nervousness.
I began, “OK, what do we think is working well here?”
Then silence, but not an unusual silence, just the engaged silence of students thinking.
“It’s brave,” one student volunteered, a woman who only days before, I imagine, had been sitting in church while church leaders warned against the evils of gay marriage.
“Well,” she said, “what he writes about, his sexuality and his mission, most people wouldn’t admit to it.”
“So how does that help the writing?”
“We can’t look away,” she said. “It’s like you always say about nonfiction. When you write about something true, something real, the reader can’t look away.” Other students nodded their heads in agreement, several of them looking to Brandon.
Just a few weeks after I had talked with Adam in my office and the day before Amanda recounted her beatings, the Mormon Church came out in support of proposed Salt Lake City laws that would prohibit discrimination against gays in housing and employment. It was the first step toward hate crime legislation, the first legal acknowledgment in Utah that gays are a protected class of people—a first solid victory.
The other day, missionaries returned to our house, hoods held close to their faces against the falling snow. I wondered if we should hide. But every light in the house was on, and I was standing at the kitchen window in full view. We have two boys now, Aidan and Kellen, who ran to the door when the visitors knocked. With their eyes on me, I opened the door.
“Hello,” the pair said in unison, their shoulders fringed in white. Behind them, snow swirled in circles.
“That’s a cool picture,” one of them said, pointing behind me to the only slice of view I had given them into our house. “Where’s it from?”
“Look, guys,” I began, “we have lived in this valley for 10 years and aren’t interested in being Mormon.” I said it as a fact, rather than an accusation.
I thought of Brandon on his mission, thought of Adam as well, Linda running laps on her balcony, and the path I wanted my sons to learn to walk as they grew up in this valley. The two men stood before me in dark suits and white shirts, wore name tags above their hearts that said they were from the Mormon Church.
“Many of my students are missionaries,” I continued. “And they write about how hard it is to go from house to house knocking on doors all day. They say how disheartening it can be, how lonely. I only want to be clear that we aren’t interested in being Mormon.” And then I paused, the cold air bright and clean against my face. “But I do wish you the best.”
“We just came by to borrow some flour,” one of the men quipped. And we all laughed.
Jennifer Sinor is associate professor of English at Utah State University and the author of The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing. Excerpted from The American Scholar (Autumn 2011), a quarterly magazine dedicated to current events, politics, history, science, culture, and the arts.