A while ago I finished reading Jonathan Langford’s new novel, No Going Back, which is a coming-of-age story about a fifteen-year-old protagonist, Paul Ficklin, who is Mormon and who is attracted to boys. I was actually debating about whether or not I was going to read this novel when I heard Jonathan was writing it, because homosexuality is an issue that hits really close to home for me. When I got the chance to read Langford’s novel, though, I felt like I should. I had to take a couple of emotional breaks in the middle, but I got through it, and I’m glad I did.
I have some limited experience when it comes to reading gay Mormon narratives. I used to follow a lot of MoHo (Mormon homosexual) blogs, I’ve read most of the personal essays on Affirmation’s website, I’ve listened to Melissa Leilani Larson’s play “Little Happy Secrets” and some talks by Carol Lynn Pearson, etc. I wouldn’t say my consumption of gay Mormon writing has been comprehensive by any means, but my education in this genre is probably higher than your average Mormon. One of the things that always concerned me when reading these narratives was the lack of any kind of well-balanced position from a faithful Latter-day Saint perspective. Very few of the voices I read said anything really helpful for Latter-day Saints who are same-sex attracted and want to keep their covenants. Most things written on this subject tend to say one of two things: (a) “Keeping your covenants isn’t possible, so give up now” or (b) “You have to keep your covenants, but we can’t really tell you how to do that in practical terms.” That’s what’s so remarkable to me about No Going Back–Jonathan Langford knows exactly how to address this issue in practical terms. Paul is hit with most of the things a Mormon kid struggling with homosexuality would be hit with nowadays: coming out to his best friend and his family, confessing sins to his bishop, becoming depressed, getting disowned, questioning his faith, and challenging popular notions about sexuality. The journeys that his mother and his bishop take in supporting Paul through everything are also particularly illuminating and helpful. I agree with Linda Hunter Adams that this novel should be required reading for Mormon religious leaders.
With all of the practical advice, though, what impressed me even more about the story was the charity and compassion with which Langford portrays his protagonist and his other characters. He does this by being honest. Jonathan doesn’t gloss over the difficult, emotionally dissonant position Paul is in. He doesn’t pretend like it’s a struggle that has easy answers. He doesn’t vilify the students in the Gay Straight Alliance at Paul’s school, and neither does he portray the youth in Paul’s ward as being saintly (both communities in Jonathan’s novel end up causing Paul a lot of grief). But Jonathan also respects Paul by not pretending that his struggle can’t on some level be resolved in a way that brings internal peace. He presents Paul with the option of finding joy in keeping his covenants with God. To even say that that’s a possibility is a pretty unpopular statement to make in modern mainstream American culture. To say that that’s an option but also show how uniquely difficult and messy that looks when practically applied is not a very popular thing to do in Mormon culture. I know that it’s kind of clichÃ© to use the term “brave” when describing a work, but in the case of No Going Back, the word applies in a very literal way. It’s not easy to write about something so controversial in an honest way–in a way that will risk your reputation in your own tight-knit religious community as well as in the larger American community. That puts Jonathan in a position very similar to Paul Ficklin’s. Thanks for taking that risk, Jonathan, and giving Mormonism something that will help a lot of people who are struggling.