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.
32 thoughts on “Review: No Going Back”
Very cool, Katherine. One of the things that’s concerned me is that some readers find the book *too* dark. I’m quite pleased that for you, the book did hold out the possibility that at some point Paul’s struggle can “be resolved in a way that brings internal peace.” I didn’t want to oversimplify, but I also didn’t want it to look like Paul was doomed to a life of unhappiness either.
I should say that I’d love to have a discussion here about some of the things people liked/disliked about the book. The whole thing has been a fascinating education in how different readers like and dislike different things, and I think it would be cool to be able to talk about that, assuming that (a) there are enough people here who have read the book, and (b) there’s an interest.
I have been waiting and waiting for this review from Katherine! My own experience with reading Jonathon’s book was a bit different so I’m glad to read her perspective.
I expect a lot of readers will say that this book hits close to home. That’s definitely true for me-three of my closest friends in HS struggled with questions of homosexuality and I have a family member who is gay. All were members of the Church. And all are not now. Their experiences really colored my reading of the book. Paul’s story seemed like a fairy tale compared with the struggles the people I knew faced. I definitely didn’t feel the book was too dark; I thought it was too rosy! (Maybe that suggest Jonathan took a balanced approach. . .)
I appreciated how Jonathan tried to give a faithful perspective to the question and I actually find myself hoping for a sequel. From what I understand, as hard as high school is college is a heckuva lot harder when it comes to this issue.
I also found myself wishing that there was a nonfiction account like this out there. The fact that the book was fiction just reinforced the fairy tale feel of it all for me . . .
Katherine–I read the pre-publication copy and I’m wondering how you felt about the side characters stories, particularly the bishop and his wife. I have a published copy but I managed to lose it somewhere in the frenzy of getting my house on the market (I’m pretty sure it’s in one of the 10 boxes marked books!) so I haven’t read it yet. For me some of the side characters seemed to take up too much of the story. Although, I did really like how Jonathan wrote Paul’s best friend.
So, Jonathan, any plans for a sequel?
I appreciate you jumping in with your perspective. One of the things I found in getting comments from people was that different readers sometimes had very different reactions to the same elements of plot, style, etc. I felt like I learned a lot, though, even (or perhaps especially) when different readers disagreed with each other. I don’t consider there as being necessarily a right or wrong in these cases, but just different reactions. As a writer, it’s helpful to know all of them — and as a reader, it throws an interesting light on the differences I often have with other readers.
Having said that, I’d like to get other people’s opinions about the desirability and possible focus of a sequel before sharing my own thoughts. I’m likely to learn more that way!
Hey. Just found out that NGB is a finalist in the General Fiction category for the Whitney Awards. Coolness! Other nominees include Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, by Jamie Ford; Gravity vs. The Girl, by Riley Noehren; The Route, by Gale Sears; and Eyes Like Mine, by Julie Wright. All things considered, I’m guessing it’s very unlikely that I’ll win the overall award, but hey, just being on the ballot is pretty cool!
I’d hoped to get some more commentary here, but that doesn’t seem to have happened. That being the case, I’ll go ahead and respond to Laura’s query/comments about a sequel…
The short answer is: I have no plans for a sequel at this time. I never did have any plans for a sequel, though I agree with Laura that the harder part of dealing with same-sexa attraction (SSA) probably still lies ahead as far as Paul is concerned. In a lot of ways, No Going Back is less about dealing with SSA and more about dealing with adolescent issues of social pressure and identity.
Comments like Laura’s have prompted me to think some about what would be involved in writing a novel showing how things turn out for Paul later on. If I wanted to write a novel about Paul leaving the Church to pursue a gay identity, that could happen at any time — later in high school, in college, on his mission, etc. Since that’s not the story I want to write, I’d have to skip ahead probably to Paul’s mid-twenties at the earliest, at the point where he’s married, with one or more children, and trying to deal with the fact that his attractions haven’t really gone away. That would be an entirely different kind of novel from this one, and probably both a harder novel to write and one that fewer readers would actually enjoy.
I agree with you, Laura, that we need more novels (and real-life stories) about people who deal with SSA successfully while staying in the Church. I also agree that this isn’t really that story, because no 16-year-old can be said to have dealt successfully with SSA. At best, they can only be said to have started down a path of dealing with it, which I think Paul does in my novel.
No Going Back isn’t really intended for those who are SSA and Mormon. Certainly I’d like to think that it captures some of that experience in a way that will resonate for such readers, and I’ve been gratified by comments indicating that this is the case. Honestly, though, there’s nothing here that such readers won’t already know for themselves better than my book could possibly depict for them. The audience I’d like to reach is people like the sister in my ward who told me the book had been a hard one for her to read, but afterwards she felt like she understood for the first time how someone could be SSA and still stay in the Church. I wanted to make the dilemma faced by such individuals real for adult Church members who might not feel they have any particular investment in this issue, except for wanting to understand how they can be supportive to those who might be dealing with this issue. That’s not an audience that will have a natural interest in my book. The challenge is how to reach them despite that…
So, Laura (if you still happen to be reading this): What elements made you feel that the book was fairy-tale-like?
My thoughts on a sequel are in line with what you posted, Jonathan so I’m afraid I can’t be of much help. I have to admit that I kinda want Paul to remain in my mind as he is.
Certainly, I think that there are many more stories that need to be told from a variety of perspectives and styles that deal with the whole issue of gays and Mormons. But I’m not clamoring for a sequel.
I’m sad you didn’t get more discussion here too. I think my reading was heavily, heavily biased by my life experiences and, after reading your comments, I may not have been your intended audience.
I want to take a moment to say that I did appreciate your book. I’m not knocking it when I say it was sort of a fairy tale. I’m glad I read it and I’m glad it’s out there getting the ball rolling on these discussions.
What was fairy-tale-esque? Well, all of the people around Paul took his coming out so well. His mother, well, I can mostly that one. His bishop? That was a harder sell for me. And the way his best friend took the news was hard for me to believe. In my mind, it seemed the whole culture of manliness and homophobia was downplayed too much. In America to be a socially successful male–you know, the silver back gorilla–homophobia is usually a necessary component. I remember Paul’s friend had to tow the homophobic line with his football buddies and how devastated Paul was when he found out, but I think the friend (why can’t I remember his name?) would have had a stronger reaction in the moment of discovery. I think the same goes for the bishop. I do think the BSA situation for Paul was very realistic when it comes to manliness and homophobia.
Also, if memory serves me correctly, the people I have known who have struggled with this have gone through some very dark, depressed periods in their teens–even when trying to be faithful. Paul was, for the most part, very hopeful. His ability to keep bouncing back from setbacks instead of rebelling set him apart from what I perceived in other people’s lives and made him feel a little more like a fairy-tale-like.
It’s interesting to me that Katherine said in her review that this book should be required reading for ecclesiastical leaders. I’m assuming that’s because she thinks it would be instructive for them; like it’s a model they could follow when dealing with it in their own wards and stakes. In my mind, that signals the story as more of an ideal take than a realistic portrayal.
None of that is bad, though. It just made the book difficult for me to read and accept because it was so startlingly different. I think that’s why I want a sequel. . . I want you to prove to me that Paul isn’t a fairy tale; that someone like him really could make those choices and be honest with the people around him and be happy; that someone like him really could exist. But, yeah, if you wrote a sequel it would be much, much more difficult.
Sheesh! This is a long comment. Guess I should have written my own review 🙂
Not that you need more of my opinion, but in thinking of sequel possibilities, it seems to me that a mission narrative could be really interesting–keep Paul firmly grounded in the LDS experience but also put him in a place where he’d really have the chance to grow.
Thanks for your comments. What you said clarified where you felt the negative was less realistic.
I’m a great believer that a big part of the stories we read is the experience we bring to the table. In a way, getting to know your reactions to No Going Back and the reasons for those reactions helps me get to know my own story better, if that makes sense… I hope you don’t mind my responses in turn, which aren’t meant to call into question your reaction but rather to explain where I was coming from — and keep the dialogue going.
On the homophobia thing, I think a lot depends on where you are. Here in western Wisconsin, my son (almost exactly Paul’s age) never expressed any homophobia toward his openly gay schoolmates, except a wish that one particular boy wouldn’t hit on him and his friend (who had a girlfriend). (My son’s comment was that if he acted toward a girl the way this other boy did toward him, people would think it was sexual harassment, but because it was this boy doing it, they thought it was cute.) A Church member in a neighhboring ward has told me about their concern that several kids in their ward are getting involved in their school’s GSA group. So I think a lot depends on where you are — and the particular chemistry of the kids there. One of the reasons I wanted to set my book in western Oregon was because I thought that was a place (based on my own experience growing up there lo, these many years ago) where there could plausibly be some social pressure to be accepting of homosexuality, even in high school.
I agree that the mother, bishop, and best friend (Chad’s) reactions are all on the positive end of the scale. Realistic, I hope, but definitely on the positive end of realistic. On the other hand, if anything I think I may have made the later reaction of the ward as a whole a little too negative. I honestly think the ward I’m in now would be more accepting than Paul’s ward…
A big part of the “movement” of the book, as I came to realize over the course of the composition, was how the “almost too good to be true” elements of the first half were balanced by the price Paul ultimately has to pay in the second half. This was meant to accompany Paul’s growing realization that he couldn’t somehow hold onto both his gay identity and his Mormon identity: that he really did have to make a choice.
This, by the way, is where some readers who found the first half of the book hopeful in found the second half quite depressing. One SSA reader wrote:
“Overall, the book was very good and relatively accurate of what actually happens and what could ideally happen when a young person comes out. There is, however, one thing that would hold me back from recommending this book to someone. The ending left me feeling terrible. It left me feeling like I’ll be stuck in this closet for the rest of my life. It made me feel like coming out would only invite rejection and persecution, especially in the church. I think this book would have scared me even more had I read it when I was still a teen. It would have pushed me into the furthest corners of my dark, hopeless closet of despair.”
Understandably, this leaves me feeling kind of awful, even if I have a hard time seeing how I could have written the ending any differently and still told the story I was trying to tell…
I was going to include my thoughts in response to your mission narrative sequel, but I’ve decided I’ll break them off into a separate post.
And now for the mission narrative sequel idea…
The problem with a mission narrative, as I see it, is that at best it’s only preparation for the real conflict. If I wrote a missionary story about Paul, it would have to be about something other than his SSA — and we’d still be left wondering at the end how the strength he’s developed is going to play out once he hits the post-mission challenge of choosing between dating/marriage and celibacy. Though I could imagine a short story about Paul teaching someone who’s gay… Hm. That’s one I could see potentially writing, a few years down the line — though it would end just as unresolved as No Going Back does, in terms of the larger issues.
One final, random post (in case anyone is still reading):
A couple of reviewers have commented negatively on the teenagers’ names in the book: Paul, Chad, Sarah, Janice, Jared, etc. — saying they’re all from the 1970s, not the 1990s/2000s. To be honest, that hadn’t even occurred to me as something to check prior to publishing the book. Thoughts?
A related, broader issue: I’ve had readers who felt that I “got” teen dialogue particularly well, and others who felt that the teen dialogue was particularly awkward (not nearly as good as the adults). I’m tempted to respond that teenagers being awkward is also realistic, and in fact, one of the areas where I had to push back against suggestions from some of my readers and occasionally my editor was in attempts to make the prose flow more smoothly, but in ways that I thought violated a teenage POV. Does anyone have opinions related to this? I have a lot of thoughts and ideas about style and what I was *trying* to do, but little clear feedback (so far) on which things worked and which didn’t.
It sounds like you are once again asking for a memoir rather than fiction?
How very Laura of you. 😉
I post here to not-so-subtly remind you about my gay Mormon novel, Ockham’s Razor, and wondering if it’s outside the bounds of “acceptableness” for review here at AMV (though that question is more directed more toward Mr Morris). I also post here because I find the conversation exciting even if there are not as many speakers as you might prefer. =p At the next Sunstone, I plan to present my “findings” with regard to some of the debates provided by your novel and my novel and the politics of “gay Mormon literature” generally (to answer Jerry Argetsinger’s call for scholarship on this subject). I’ve only begun putting pieces together, but I should…scratch that, ~must~…be done by the end of Spring, as it’s a capstone project for my MA degree. I believe I had told you last year that my project would be on “gayness and Mormonism,” which I now realize was too big a chunk (how naive of me =D). Anyhow, the modest networking for my novel, and the novel itself, seems to warrant me filling a specific “gay Mormon” niche…
The reason I’m interested in your novel vis-a-vis mine is because both were published in 2009, and both use the framework of gayness as an “essential” characteristic, which in Mormon culture, is a political statement (as evidenced by the scathing conservative reviews of your book). However, my novel interrogates this framework, so that the narrator makes an active “choice” to be gay and not Mormon (whereas his counterpart does the opposite). Thus, I am curious of the “believing Mormon’s” take on my novel…even though actually soliciting such an opinion proves difficult because the story’s “realistic” content.
An initial question I would throw out is whether a cover of two young men in an embrace (such as the cover of my novel) is inherently “anti-Mormon” and thus would AMV be averse to posting it on its site? I’m really interested in the bounds of this thing called “Mormon literature,” when my novel is being welcomed as “gay Mormon lit” and your novel seems to qualify as both.
Anyhow, these are just some initial considerations.
I haven’t seen scathing reviews from conservative readers. I’ve only seen scathing reviews from feminist/liberal readers.
I’m sorry I haven’t gotten back to you. I’ve been swamped with other projects and simply haven’t been able to do *any* of the outside reading I had planned to do. I will try to get to your book soon.
Moriah: Yeah, there were a couple of scathing conservative reviews on a website/blog called Standard of Liberty. I’ve included links to the reviews from my website, http://www.langfordwriter.com (Reviews page). On the other hand, their reading of the novel is so eccentric that I’m not sure I can even consider it as a true “conservative” reaction. I’ve also had general indications of discontent from some circles, like the directive to pull my book from the BYU Bookstore (still in process of appeal as far as I know), but I don’t know if those are reactions to the book itself or to controversy involving people who have heard about the book but not read it.
Well, Jonathan, IMO, if you pissed off people on both sides of the aisle, then you did your job right.
Amen to that.
Wow about BYU. If your book is pulled from BYU, would that really make those conservative reviews all that eccentric? The way I see it is that those reviews are expressions from people who think about gayness as something that should be nonexistent, which is basically the same sentiment that would pull your book from BYU shelves. Maybe I’m making a cognitive leap there, but BYU does have “no gay” policy. To your knowledge, does BYU stock any other SSA-themed books?
I see “In Quiet Desperation” on their site, so I guess so.
In reply to Alan (18): They do stock other books on this subject, and in fact, as of a couple of years ago, the wording of the BYU Honors Code was revised to make it clear that “being homosexual isn’t against the Honor Code, but engaging in homosexual activity is” (quoting the Daily Universe article). The current wording (unless it’s been changed again since 2007) is as follows:
“Brigham Young University will respond to homosexual behavior rather than to feelings or orientation and welcomes as full members of the university community all whose behavior meets university standards. Members of the university community can remain in good Honor Code standing if they conduct their lives in a manner consistent with gospel principles and the Honor Code.
“One’s stated sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue. However, the Honor Code requires all members of the university community to manifest a strict commitment to the law of chastity. Homosexual behavior or advocacy of homosexual behavior are inappropriate and violate the Honor Code. Homosexual behavior includes not only sexual relations between members of the same sex, but all forms of physical intimacy that give expression to homosexual feelings. Advocacy includes seeking to influence others to engage in homosexual behavior or promoting homosexual relations as being morally acceptable.”
The part about being pulled from the BYU Bookstore is odd, because (a) it’s not entirely clear where it comes from, and (b) the timing suggests that it could not have been based on anyone actually reading a copy from the BYU Bookstore. In fact, with the exception of the two oddball reviews I mentioned, most readers (including quite orthodox Mormons) see the book as very much in line with LDS teachings. I’ve actually taken more flak from the language and general teenage crudeness than from the approach.
There are, I think, three basically different positions that believing LDS Church members may take with respect to homosexuality:
a. Belief that it is essentially a weakness and a sin, and that any “embracing” of gay identity or feelings is therefore a giving-in to sin
b. Belief that it is a mistaken or distorted manifestation of feelings that may have some genuine positive basis (such as a desire for emotional intimacy), but have been misapplied to same-gender sexuality
c. Belief that it is a basic part of a person’s eternal personality of which we need to be more tolerant and understanding (a minority position, and one that goes against current Church teachings, but one that is nonetheless held by some active LDS)
I would say that my book is most consistent with position (b) above. The authors of the shrill reviews at Standard of Liberty are, so far as I can tell, adherents of (a). (They also don’t like the change to the BYU Honor Code.)
I think another source of flak is that I don’t endorse different people’s particular approaches to how homosexuality ought ideally to be handled within an LDS context. I don’t talk about therapeutic approaches, for example, primarily because that just didn’t fit, in my view, in a novel about a teenager. A lot of this, though, is stuff I’ve picked up secondhand, so I’m reading tea leaves to some extent.
The (a), (b) and (c) that you have outlined here match up with my own assessment of the present-day. Historically, however, I think we can see the following paradigm shift:
abomination –> addiction –> affliction.
(a) is a continuation of the “abomination” era, and (b) is what began by the late 1980s. Since SSA itself is not considered an “addiction,” it is left unexplained as an “affliction.” This puts us in the present era, where it is left open to interpretation, fracturing the Church into (a), (b), and (c). The reason I outline it this way, rather than give absolute credence to (b) is because, well, (b) doesn’t have absolute salience in Mormon culture and we must recognize this as storytellers.
What I think is interesting about your novel is that you foreground (b) and the ways in which Mormon culture works to keep (b) intact, rather than fall back into (a) or fall into (c) (though, symbolically, I see your use of the word “faggot” as (a) and the GSA characters’ worldviews as (c)). One example of foregrounding (b) is the conversation Paul has with his bishop after Paul has been “sinful.” His bishop says: “Stop going to the GSA, don’t relate with other gays” and the bishop even mentions how Satan is trying to sway Paul during his feelings of guilt, which is essentially the bishop making himself a moral authority. Now, this makes sense to Paul, but from where I’m sitting, it has elements of an abusive relationship. It is akin to the partner who insists on who one’s friends can be, or else threatens to end the relationship. But this is not my point. The point is, when folks read your book, they don’t only see Paul’s struggle, but they also see how the culture at large is treating him in service of paradigm (b), and thus they become more critical of paradigm (b). This doesn’t mean (c) will occur (although Standard of Liberty thinks it will), but it does put a critical lens on the paradigm laid out by the Brethren on a contentious issue. This is the source of ill-feeling toward your book by conservatives: you’re essentially making transparent the Brethren’s actions, even as you (or at least, the story) does not disagree with their beliefs. But in the long run, beliefs are underpinned by actions, not the other way around…
My novel works in paradigm (c) (so the conservatives would never touch it =p); however, I do the same work that your novel does, by putting a critical lens on paradigm (c). This is why I really would like to get some more thoughtful readers. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, of course, about the “politics” you see your novel doing…I’m only relaying the politics ~I~ see your novel doing…
Oh, with regard to the therapeutic approaches, it depends on the resources of the community…whether the whole town is Mormon, etc. In your novel, I thought it was appropriate to have the bishop fills this niche because he may not had the resources to “outsource” Paul to a therapist.
Or rather, it wasn’t the bishop mostly, but Chad’s dad. The point still stands though. =) Sorry, I haven’t yet read the book in full. I probably should if I plan to talk about it.
I like your abomination/addiction/affliction breakdown, which serves a somewhat different purpose from my typology but does serve to point out an interesting evolution.
I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to say that “when folks read your book, they don’t only see Paul’s struggle, but they also see how the culture at large is treating him in service of paradigm (b),” since in the end, most of Paul’s problems come from people who buy into either (a) — mostly intolerant kids in his ward — or (c) — the kids at GSA, including the one who “outs” him. However, I will agree that one of my rhetorical goals was to be realistic about how hard (b) can be.
Most of my readers who have had ideological problems with my book (so far as I can tell) are those who have a strong interest in SSA, with definite views about it (either because they are SSA or because they work with those who are). As best I can tell, they dislike the book because they think I “get it wrong” in some way: e.g., by not having Paul (or someone close to him) interrogate his notion of “being gay” (because by accepting this as a label he’s buying into Satan’s ideas), or because I don’t emphasize the possibility that his feelings may change over time, or whatever.
I take the fact that many readers from paradigm (c), as well as those who share paradigm (b), find my novel compelling as a sign that I’m doing something write. Most mainstream members, though, don’t find my novel threatening, so far as I can tell. This is one area, I think, where believing LDS Church members and nonbelievers are likely to read my book very differently, because the spiritual consolations Paul receives — testimony, blessings, promises from priesthood leaders — are inherently less meaningful for nonbelievers than they are for believers. A nonbeliever, I think, is likely to read and wonder why Paul would think it was worth it to stay in the Church. This is true, I think, even if the nonbeliever is a former believer — because ultimately, even if he/she felt those things at one time, they were not ultimately powerful enough to keep the reader in the Church. The most that such a reader can do is remember a time he/she would have felt like Paul. I’m not saying this is a bad way to read the book; but it’s not my intended way, and based on my experience, it’s not the way most of the audience I was trying to reach interprets the book.
I guess my point is that I don’t think believing members of the Church who read my book will feel less inclined to accept the Church’s position on homosexuality, partly because it’s their expectations that *all of us* have to undergo hard things for our faith. What I’ve tried to do is help them see the situation of those who are SSA but attempt to stay faithful in that kind of light — as similar to the sacrifices and difficulties all of us undergo as part of the price of trying to follow God. My larger rhetorical goal was a feeling of understanding and compassion, not an undercutting of the Church’s position on this issue. And while some readers may see that as a result of my book, my experience so far is that most believing Church members haven’t.
And by the way, since Chad’s dad is also the bishop, your confusion is understandable — though I think it’s stretching it a bit to see cautioning a teenager to stay away from a group with different values as a form of abuse… Not to mention that Paul goes ahead and keeps going to GSA anyway.
I do look forward to reading your book so I can include it as part of discussions like this one. It sounds like an interesting thing you’ve attempted. It will be interesting to see how it works.
I should add that there are also those in the LDS community with a strong interest in SSA who like my book, including some who say things like, “I like it but wish…” Most of those who don’t like it at all (I assume there are some) haven’t talked directly to me about it or posted where I’ve seen their views.
There is a relationship between the nonbelieving interpretations and the believing interpretations, since “gayness” or “queerness” is something that the Church keeps at arm’s length (it doesn’t “fit” in the theology). The Church is doing this “pushing away” less so now — but is still uncertain how to manage it — which is where the value of your book comes in. I agree that the Church, as a whole, has moved in a Mansfieldian (Ty) direction. You call this paradigm B. I call this being “essentially gay” — that there isn’t necessarily hope for “change,” but there is hope for “happiness.” Dean Byrd from paradigm A calls this “cynical.” Mansfield calls this “realistic.” Many of us in paradigm C call it “transitional,” given that those who come to terms with being essentially gay often do not stay in the Church. A lifetime struggle of reconciling one’s sexuality with God is not something most people want to undergo. That SSA is “like other struggles” is rhetorical flourish, IMO. Obviously, it’s easier for some; I don’t want to discount those who are happy in mixed-orientation marriages, raising children, but as we all know, there’s more than one kind of “gay.” Paradigm B is more difficult to maintain as the country as a whole moves toward C, and there becomes such a thing as queer kinship. Hence, the Church’s involvement in Prop 8.
So, even though I’m a paradigm C person, I can very much see the paradigm A position and the concern this position has with books like yours. Mormonism, at its heart, embraces paradigm A because gays will not be gay in Heaven. Paradigm B is a position that is “flimsy” and requires delicate care. For that reason, I believe that your book is doing something right; it’s engaged in a kind of necessary cultural work. But frankly, the culture as a whole does not determine the outcome of this issue; those heavily invested in it do: social workers, Church leaders, those with SSA, families with family members who have SSA, ~you~. These people tell everyone else what to think. They frame the debate.
Oh, and on the GSA thing, yes Paul keeps attending, but then it eventually bites him. This can be read as justifying Richard’s concern, but it can also be read as “Langford’s framing.” I don’t know of any gay person who doesn’t find solace in finding other gay people…which Paul is the only gay Mormon in the story, so far as I’ve read.
Actually, I *don’t* think that calling SSA a struggle like other struggles is simply a rhetorical flourish. Indeed — though I hadn’t though of it quite this way — the ability to see it as something more than a rhetorical flourish is, perhaps, the defining characteristic of position (b). The ability to see SSA as a trial, like other earthly trials, is what makes it possible to not condemn oneself for experiencing the struggle, while at the same time also finding hope in staying in the Church.
I’d hesitate to call my (b) position “essential” gayness, since one of its key components is the idea that homosexuality as such is not an eternal part of a person’s nature, at least not in terms of sexual or romantic desire. It may be a distortion of some other positive desire. But you have to go to the (c) position in order to find the notion of gayness as a permanent and eternal manifestation of personality.
I also think you may be oversimplifying Dean Byrd’s position to call him a proponent of position (a) (again using my typology from comment 20). As I understand it — and I’m far from an expert on this — Byrd is a proponent of reparative therapy, which if anything seems pretty heavily committed to the notion the same-gender attraction is an unhealthy distortion of real desires for intimacy.
What I would say is that Byrd and Mansfield both represent different flavors of (b), with their major difference lying in the degree of emphasis they place on the possibility of change during this lifetime. And even that difference is more apparent than real, in my opinion — since Mansfield doesn’t deny that such change can happen, and Byrd (so far as I can tell) doesn’t claim that it can happen in all cases. Sure, there are significant differences between the two (and among the other positions of those involved with Evergreen, North Star, etc.), but most if not all of those all lie within the (b) camp, so far as I can tell.
Speaking of which… If you want to situate your research within respect to mainstream LDS views of SSA, you probably should check out (if you haven’t done already) the collection Understanding Same-Sex Attraction (LDS edition), published in 2009 by the Foundation for Attraction Research. Byrd is one of the editors, but it seems to have drawn across a range of contributors. I haven’t read the book myself — didn’t even get a copy until after my own book was published — but it sounds like it may be a relevant resource for the research you’re doing.
Back to my book: I agree that the problem Paul experiences in the GSA is part of my framing, but it’s also a reflection of one of the originary impulses of my story: that is, to depict the sense of faithful LDS who are same-sex attracted of being caught between two worlds — misunderstood both within the Church and within the gay community. Paul certainly longs for that understanding, but ultimately he has to choose which identity is more important to him. This, I believe, is an accurate reflection of the experience of those who are SSA but choose to stay in the Church.
I really appreciate this debate (if it is a debate, or just a matter of clarifying our positions)… I put the LDS book on my library queue (though it’ll have to be shipped from either BYU or from BYU-Hawaii).
What I’m beginning to realize is that the Church is cordoned off enough that the question of SSA has developed in its own way, a uniquely Mormon way. To present this to the outside world takes a lot of readjusting. I’m reminded of how Armaud Mauss in his All Abraham’s Children argues that for Mormons, unlike other Americans, ideas about race were never tied to the census, but to their own doctrines about lineage. This does not discount “racial” thinking, but it helps to explain 1978. Similarly, I wouldn’t consider Mormons “homophobic” (except when, well, you know) but they’re certainly still heteronormative — yet, in their own way. Still, I doubt most people have the patience to understand Mormonism on its own terms, which will be a detriment to the Church moving forward.
I still want to push on the way you’re categorizing the field. It is all very well to put Mansfield and Byrd in the same category because they’re ultimately both “faith-affirming.” But let us not forget that paradigm (a) is also faith-affirming, and not a minority viewpoint. In your descriptions of the paradigms, only does paradigm (a) use the word “sin.” But as Rick Phillips (sociologist of religion) argues, if you consider the fact that the Church hasn’t abandoned the earlier edicts of apostles and prophets who have said, without equivocation, that homosexuality can (and should) be changed, then it becomes clear that a “fundamentalist undertow” — AKA paradigm (a) — hides barely beneath the new current of tolerance. When “change” is NOT the main argument put forward, then what you end up having are a bunch of gay Mormons being celibate, “struggling.” And unlike other Christian faiths, there is no theological niche for the celibate person in Mormonism. The gay Mormon defines this niche in practice (Evergreen, Northstar, storytelling, blogs), even if in theory this is all under the guise of Mormonism. The “worldmaking” powers are taken out of the hands of Church leaders, and this can eventually cause fissures, especially now that the Church is the size that it is, and especially since it does not exist entirely in a social vacuum (which is why there are paradigm (c) Mormons).
Another way to think of it is this: now that Paul has experienced an environment like the GSA, is he any more likely to stay in the Church as an adult? Opposing values can certainly strengthen one’s testimony, and give one a sense of “extra experience” they can offer Mormonism. But the Church doesn’t exactly push its members to relate with those who oppose their values. As a whole, this kind of intermingling causes deep change, even if on the individual level it’s just “personal.”
I reminded of the 19th century theologian Walter Rauschenbusch who said: “The Kingdom of God is not a matter of getting individuals to heaven, but of transforming the life on earth into the harmony of heaven.” Gay people in the Church are trying their hardest to do the latter (make their earthly lives happy), rather than concentrate on the former (change for the sake of Heaven). But this puts them in contention with the Church, which over time, makes the idea of “a Church for all people” seem questionable.
I don’t insist on my typology. There are lots of individual variations in how members of the Church see this issue. Depending on how you slice it, you could wind up with very different categories than mine. I’m just saying that if you do use my categories, I think Byrd and Mansfield both wind up in the same one — not because they’re both “faith-affirming” (since as you point out position A is just as consistent with LDS Church teachings as position B), but because they both hold out the possibility that SSA may in origin be something positive or natural that’s been misapplied.
This, I think, has important implications for how those who are SSA view themselves and for the strategies they and those who work with them might favor for dealing with their attractions. I agree, though, that on a fundamental level it’s not any more positive toward homosexuality as a phenomenon or lifestyle choice. Disapproving of homosexuality because it’s a misdirection of divine potential is, from a Mormon theological standpoint, just as strong as disapproving because you believe homosexuality is (say) a manifestation of lust. In fact, it may be worse. Of course, from an LDS viewpoint, it’s possible to see all sin as a misdirection of divine potential…
This, by the way, was the biggest beef I had with Kushner in Angels in America. Among his other carelessnesses with Mormon culture, the biggest thing he completely missed was the way that “if you’re Mormon, being part of a family is more than just a badge of normality; it’s part of your essential purpose for existing, a key element of your eternal identity. Surely part of what makes being Mormon and gay so poignant is the sense that choosing a life of homosexuality isn’t just a sin; it’s also giving up who you are and what you are meant to be as a child of God” (quoting my review essay from Irreantum). In short, Kushner treats Mormons as more or less generic conservative Protestants, when (on this issue in particular) we really aren’t — even if on the surface our position looks very similar. I’d similarly argue that Mormons are the only Christian denomination with reasons against homosexuality that spring from bedrock doctrine, as opposed to codes of conduct — because we’re the only religion that makes heterosexuality a key attribute both of divinity and of humanity.
All of which, I think (at least the last part) is my way of agreeing with you that trying to explain the Mormon position on homosexuality to a non-Mormon audience is likely to be quite a challenge.
One of the fundamental bedrock assumptions of the gay movement is that in order to achieve true satisfaction and fulfillment in life, you must in some way satisfy your romantic aspirations as expressed through your orientation. Orthodox LDS teachings (whether from position A or position B in my typology) directly challenge that. Basically, if you’re going to accept the orthodox LDS position, you have to accept that those who experience same-sex attraction are broken in some way. But then, I would argue that in order to accept the gospel of Christ, you have to accept that *all* of us are broken in some way. Hence the need for an atonement. The specific fracture patterns may be different for those with SSA than for those who suffer from other specific afflictions, but in our brokenness, we are all alike before God.
Hmm…this brokenness is interesting. Although Mormons reject original sin, they don’t reject the idea that “natural man” without the Holy Spirit is an “enemy of God” (see Mosiah 3:19). I can thus see this movement from some elements of SSA being originated from a good thing but then misapplied in a “worldly” way.
FYI, though, the gay movement is NOT about satisfying romance ~necessarily~ through the same gender; it’s about having the freedom to do so if one chooses. I think your character of Sarah at the GSA is telling in this regard (her discussion with Paul about “denying who you are. Trying not to be gay when you are gay.”)… but this is not the whole of the gay rights movement, or even what I would even consider a fundamental bedrock assumption. It is, perhaps, what many straight people take from the movement.
I defer to your greater expertise and exposure within the gay community with respect to goals and aspirations, although I’m not really talking about the gay rights movement as such, but rather something older and less political. Call it the gay identity movement, or perhaps mindset would be a better word.
It has seemed to me, based on what I’ve seen of that mindset, that one of its fundamental assumptions is that if you are homosexually oriented, you won’t achieve true happiness or satisfaction unless you strive to achieve whatever your romantic aspirations may be within that context. Certainly you’re free not to do so, but there’s no way you’ll really be happy unless you do. The universal message of the gay narratives I’ve read has been that satisfaction and happiness require embracing a gay identity (if, of course, you’re homosexual). Choosing to walk away from that identity, for religious or other reasons, is presented as a road leading to frustration and disappointment.
It’s my sense that when faithful Mormons who are SSA talk about not being understood or accepted in the gay community, this is part of what they’re talking about. Choosing not to pursue a gay identity is seen as self-limiting behavior within the gay community — or at least, that’s my sense of what their perceptions and experience have been. Would you say that’s not the case?
Thinking about it, this, I think, is what distinguishes the notion of homosexual (or gay) *identity* from homosexual *attractions.* An identity, by definition, is something that must be satisfied in order to be whole and complete within oneself. Attractions, on the other hand, aren’t necessarily so central to one’s self-definition.
The orthodox Mormon position, as I see it, asserts that regardless of the origins of homosexuality — genetic, chemical, environmental, or other — there is a deeper level at which none of us is truly homosexual. This is a position that only makes sense if you accept LDS notions of a preexistent spirit (or something else that stands in for such notions). This, I think, is one of the reasons why Church leaders are often unhappy with notions of gay identity even if not coupled with homosexual activity per se: because it incorporates a mindset they see as being fundamentally at odds with core Mormon doctrine.
Well, you’ll be happy to know that the narrator of my novel, Micah, comes to these conclusions, or at least, comes to an awareness of the Mormon mindset, even though he starts out as buying into this “gay identity” notion. He recognizes that there is a different way of framing it, and that this framing makes sense on its own terms. The other main character, Brendan, is more like Paul. And yes, Brendan has a hard time fitting in gay culture, although neither Micah nor Brendan are really in gay culture that much anyway. I’ll be curious as to how you feel about the moral of the story, or what you find the moral to be.
I would like to point out that the way the gay movement manifests right now has been termed by scholars like Lisa Duggan as “homonormative.” In other words, it does have a problem with accepting the “other,” such as the SSA Mormon. But just as you are idealizing Mormonism here (even though your novel shows the good, bad and ugly), there is an idealized way of imagining queer politics, too. A very good example that comes to mind is when Michael Quinn at the 1996 Sunstone Symposium presented his book “Same-Sex Dynamics among 19th-Century Mormons.” A LDS feminist critiqued him this way: “By nudging the interests in the limited direction of homoerotic experience…Quinn hardens the boundaries around the concepts ‘homosexual’ and ‘same-sex dynamics’ and implicitly naturalizes the categories. …Oppressive structures are perpetuated.” Then she was quick to add: “[But] if readers accept Quinn’s argument and maintain appreciation for the lives and contributions of these early Mormons, then…our community is considerably enriched.” Now THAT’s the kind of politics I like, both within and without Mormon culture. I’ve taken a few queer theory and Women’s Studies courses, and let me assure you, you’ll find these kinds of critiques more than the critiques one sees in “gay culture” that are highly identitarian.
But, if you really want to get into the history, the “gay identity” was not created by SSA people. “Sexual orientation” was created by sexologists whose aim was to scientifically stamp out “homosexual” actions (which we see through the 1970s). People began to be labeled homosexual (an “essence”) by others (the closet was transparent, particularly for effeminate men and masculine women), and these people were ostracized from their families in great numbers. “Gays” embraced the identity and flocked to urban areas as a ~survival mechanism.~ People often demonize the gay movement without realizing this history. Given this history, though, I fail see how attraction and action on that attraction require “identity.” If anything, homosexuality was just a compartmentalization based on gender choice of attractions and actions that were already occurring in relative frequency. This is not to say that sodomy wasn’t frowned upon, but I would have to agree with Quinn that the definitional boundaries, like the one you posted above from BYU’s Honor Code, were simply unheard of. The oppressive “homosexual” structure isn’t just coming from the gay rights movement; Mormonism has latched onto it wholeheartedly.
Thanks for this conversation…it was very helpful. I hope you found so, too.