As noted in the festival preview, this year’s film festival featured a session devoted to Gay/Lesbian/Transgender issues. Kudos for Christian Vuissa and other LDSFF leaders for allowing this type of session to facilitate honest and open discussion of “sensitive” issues that are obviously a hot topic in the Church today.
This session contained five individual film segments from 9 to 17 minutes on a range of topics, sponsored and led by members of Mormons Building Bridges, a support group for LGBT Mormons. While it was convenient to have them all presented on a big screen at once, all of the short films are available online for other interested viewers without needing to attend the festival.
I missed the panel discussion afterwards due to an overlapping screening, but here are some thoughts on the short films and the related issues or questions they provoke:
Transmormon (dir. Torben Bernhard)
Transmormon (also available for viewing here) features Eri Hayward (born Eddie) who felt she was a female spirit trapped in a boy’s body since she was five or six. Her family is devout LDS and Eri herself (even after undergoing successful sex change surgery overseas) sincerely desires to remain Mormon. A note at the end states that she is currently “working with Church leaders to determine the status of her membership” — a complicated process given that the Church handbook is pretty clear that transsexuals are to be barred from temple ordinances and full fellowship. (In an interesting twist, she was also ordained to the priesthood at 12 since she was still an active LDS boy at the time, which raises some interesting questions about female ordination and how priesthood authority and transference actually works.)
Transmormon is effective at showing Eri’s vibrant personality and honest sincerity in wanting both to be physically female and to remain Mormon at the same time. (One hopes Church Powers That Be will be compassionate in this regard — after all, with recent difficulties in member activity, the Church should treasure anyone who genuinely wants to be an active Mormon.)
It’s arguable the traditional LDS doctrine that spirits have gender as do physical bodies creates a theological space for transgender individuals, if you imagine a literal joining of a female ‘spirit’ in a male body (exactly what transgender individuals claim is the case to begin with). Granted, this requires the acceptance of “mistakes” so to speak when spirits are joined with the body, but isn’t that far removed from spirits being allowed into physical bodies with birth defects. Perhaps being in a body with the wrong gender is just a great big “birth defect”?
In one moving scene, Eri’s dad talks about seeing the possibility of seeing Eri in the resurrection and hoping/anticipating that her “perfected body” would be female. Given that the details of resurrection being in one’s “perfect form” are somewhat vague to begin with, why couldn’t one view her self-identified female spirit as a better representation of her true identity in the eternities than an arguably flawed physical body?
There probably isn’t enough material to create a full documentary about Eri, but her story would be a wonderful component to a more comprehensive documentary about transgender Mormons at the same time.
Blessing (dir. Stephen Williams)
Based on a true story, Blessing features Bill, an older Mormon dad felled by a heart-attack and close to death. Two of his sons have gathered with the local bishopric to give him a blessing, and are joined by Bill’s third son David, an RM and priesthood holder, but who’s gay and currently living with his partner.
David asks to join the blessing circle (the acting here makes it hard to tell whether he’s trolling — asking knowing he would be refused — or genuinely sincere) but is denied by the bishop. When the semi-conscious Bill refuses to receive a blessing without David participating, the bishop relents and everyone has a spiritual moment together.
Bad acting and cheesy music make Blessing much less effective than it could have been. The film obviously intends family conversations to have many ‘awkward pauses’ to show other family members’ uncomfortableness with David and his lifestyle, but the poor acting mixes in unintentional ‘awkward pauses’ in the dialogue as well. However, there are enough interesting elements in the family dynamics and the subject matter to make Blessing a good candidate for a future remake, with more solid production values and perhaps a more robust script.
As with Transmormon, Blessing raises questions about exactly how and when someone who was originally ordained to the priesthood becomes later unable to use it. Is it up to the original priesthood holder to decide? Or the bishop? Should the person receiving the blessing have the last say? How do you ‘prove’ someone has or doesn’t have the priesthood in God’s eyes in case of uncertainty?
(We should note the current “priesthood keys” doctrine that dictates how priesthood ordinances are performed was a formulation after the polygamy crisis at the beginning of the 20th century. In Joseph Smith’s time a priesthood holder did not need anyone’s permission to perform an ordinance.)
Current Church policy says a priesthood holder without a temple recommend cannot act as voice confirming their child after baptism, although they can still stand in the confirmation circle and can still perform the baptism in the first place. If that seems like a weird distinction to make — being “worthy” for some priesthood functions but not for others as if there’s some kind of worthiness “scale” on which to chart numerical rankings — then you have an idea how complicated priesthood use is in practice.
One interesting line has David’s supportive sister saying to him after the initial refusal, “Why do you care? You should be glad to be free of all that!” Good question: why would David or any gay Mormon “care” about being both? The fact is: there are many gay men and women who still want to be Mormon because they’ve had spiritual experiences, they feel they’ve developed a relationship with God in an LDS context, and that “Mormon” is just as much a part of their identity as the “gay” identifier…despite pressure from members of both camps that they have to choose one or the other. As with Eri above, the question becomes to what extent Church leaders will allow those two identities to mix.
Voicings (dir. Stephen Williams)
Voicings features Douglas, a married 50-something man with adult children who surreptitiously meets with a male lover for discrete sexual encounters. His lover (also married to a woman) is at peace with his sexuality, but Douglas still suffers from extreme guilt and self-loathing after each encounter. His wife more or less knows what’s going on but loves Douglas deeply despite continually wishing this particular problem would “just go away”.
Voicings is a clear step up from Williams’ earlier film. Despite the brief running time, all of the main characters are compelling, especially Douglas and his lover who only have a brief scene talking together but share much about both men’s character and personality in that time. Voicings appears to be on track for expansion as a full feature film, and is certainly worthy of it.
Some of the tough questions suggested by Voicings are:
- Is it generally judged by the gay community to be ‘okay’ for Douglas (or any traditionally-married gay man) to have an extra-marital sexual encounter with a man, when it wouldn’t have been ‘okay’ if it was with a woman (or if he were already married to a man)? Isn’t that a double standard?
- If Douglas continually feels guilty after meeting his lover each time is that a sign he should stop, or a sign he should simply try to feel less guilty about it? What’s the purpose of guilt, and are there things people *should* feel guilty about? (Cheating on his wife, for example, but not specifically about having a sexual encounter with a man? Or both? Or neither?)
Voicings is the one feature I’m genuinely looking forward to seeing the full version.
Far Between — Wilum (dir. Kendall Wilcox)
Wilum is a short ten-minute segment from a larger Far Between project that chronicles personal experiences about being gay and Mormon. The Wilum segment is probably the least stand-alone element of this set of short films, even though 60-year-old Wilum, a self-described “punk rocker, exhibitionist Mormon” is certainly a colorful character (literally and figuratively). The notes describe how Wilum was born Mormon, served a mission, and then was excommunicated after coming out. Years later he met with missionaries and was re-baptized, although still maintains his persona as a “gay punk rocker”.
The short film clip only touches on a couple of those interesting events in his life, however, which is why this clip in isolation isn’t as notable as the others. A full documentary about Wilum’s life would probably be compelling (and the Far Between site does appear to have more segments about his life, which I haven’t seen yet…)
It Gets Better At BYU (dir. Kendall Wilcox)
Sponsored by both the Far Between team and the Understanding Same-Gender Attraction group at BYU, this short film contains testimonies of gay and lesbian BYU students (and some ‘gay allies’) offering support for any fellow students who may be feeling isolated and alone.
The presented statistics report that there are over 1800 LGB students at BYU and that most of them (as they were taught) first responded to same-sex attraction with “increased personal righteousness”. And when that doesn’t “solve” the problem, 74% contemplate suicide and 24% attempt it.
This positive film will serve as a helpful Public Service Announcement (so to speak) that not all BYU students are monolithic in attitudes towards gay and lesbian students, and that no one needs to feel alone. Recent Honor Code adjustments in 2007 and 2010 have allowed an official ‘space’ for students to openly claim “gay/lesbian” as part of their identity without reprisal (although the chastity requirements still apply).
You may have noted that none of the above short films centers around (or even mentions) “gay marriage”. Too often the ‘gay vs. Mormon’ debate gets simplified to ‘should gay couples have a piece of paper with the word ‘marriage’ on it?’ as if that’s the only issue that concerns gay relations today. In reality, the common theme between all of these films is compassion, understanding, and acceptance, not having the “correct” opinion on marital social policy. Hopefully these films (and others like them) will open up discussion about charity and love for LGBT individuals inside and outside of church contexts without getting lost in the furor of the gay marriage debate.