Sunday, December 9, 2012

Book review: The Cross in the Closet

I recently read Timothy Kurek's The Cross in the Closet. It's the memoir of a 21-year-old, straight, evangelical Christian man who, in order to overcome his own homophobia, decides to pretend to be gay for a year.  The book recounts an eventful period of change that takes the young man from anti-gay bully to GLBT ally. Of course, the premise isn't completely credible-- there's also the small matter that the person in question intends to write a book about his experience and not just live it.

So without admitting in the narrative that he's doing this, Kurek embarks on undercover journalism in the tradition of Black Like Me and Nickel and Dimed. In this case, going undercover includes falsely coming out as gay to his own parents, siblings and friends. This is a cruel and foolish thing to do, and we read of some of the unsurprising fallout as the story unfolds.

Cruelty is one of the themes of the book, and it's something that makes the story a tough slog at times. We learn for example that Kurek was involved as a teenager in the vicious and sustained harassment of a middle-aged gay man who ends up dying of a heart attack. Was this experience any motivation for reflection? Judging from the text, probably not. However, after Kurek's later change of heart, guilt over his involvement in bullying becomes the focus of a chapter in the book. It's an ugly and shameful story.

In another case, an acquaintance of Kurek's tells him that she's just lost her entire social world-- she's been rejected and shunned by her conservative parents, her friends and her evangelical church because she's a lesbian. Kurek's coldness in the face of this heartbreaking human suffering is shocking-- his impulse is to call her to repentance. He doesn't do this verbally, but his friend notices his silence and his rejecting body language and is deeply hurt. Later, upon reflection, he becomes wracked with guilt over his judgmental reaction to his friend's loss. This (ostensibly) gives him the idea of living as a gay-identified person for a year.

I confess that I was prepared not to like this book. There are a number of ethical problems with the premise, for example. However, despite the many cringe-inducing moments, the protagonist who emerges is likable and sincere. I found myself rooting for him as he bumbles along making all-to-obvious discoveries such as "gay people are capable of religious feeling" and "gay people aren't all drunk sex fiends." He also discovers that being the recipient of aggressive, unwanted sexual attention from men can be an uncomfortable experience. That these rather obvious insights are such revelations is evidence how burdened the author is by religiously-motivated anti-gay animus and misogyny.

One of the good points of this book is that it really is a window into the mind of a conservative Christian in the process of acquiring a more open view of the world. Kurek's entire life experience and cultural programming collide with the humanity of the gay people who embrace him and generously help him as a person who (they believe) has just come out. A lot happens along the way, and the story clips along at a reasonable pace. The author is a competent storyteller. His descriptions of his evolution and growth are the strongest parts of this book. The weakest part is his tendency to resolve complex situations with an emotional tidiness that is just a little too convenient. Also, this book is packed with spellchecker-induced malapropisms. A few of these are unintentionally hilarious. Unfortunately, the poor editing is a real distraction.

I think this book is worthwhile, and I think it applies to Mormonism as well as the evangelical tradition as a heartfelt, serious attempt at documenting the process of change that occurs when ideology softens in the face of human experience.

[Update: I corrected the text about bullying after feedback from the author.]

Monday, April 2, 2012

It is not good for man to be alone

I'm not a big fan of biblical exegesis. It's just not something that speaks to me. It reminds me of arguments about tax law.

HOWEVER...

Occasionally, once in a blue moon, a theological argument comes along that captures my interest, as this video did. The speaker, Matthew Vines, a 21-year-old college student, is well-informed, articulate and passionate about his subject. It's extraordinarily well done, over-the-top well done.

The presentation runs about an hour. If you don't have time now, bookmark this and come back to it. You won't be sorry. Although the speaker doesn't target an LDS audience specifically, his analysis will apply equally.



I particularly like his points that mention the positive biblical statements about pair bonds.

I don't know much about this young man, but I know he will do well in life. I'm proud to claim Mr. Vines for Team Gay.

Via: Dan Savage

(For those of you who just can't bring yourself to watch, the transcript is here. There is also an article by Vines where he discusses his motivations.)

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Testimony

The San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus recently made an "It Gets Better" video, with original music ("Testimony") by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. The music distinguishes this effort from other such videos, as does its unusually frank treatment of the subject of youth suicide. It's definitely worth watching.



I can relate to the pain portrayed in this video. This was me some 30 years ago. As an adolescent and young adult I had done everything I was supposed to and after my mission found myself at the brink of despair. It’s not sexual frustration or a desire to sin that makes so many young gay Mormons take their own lives. "Testimony" gets close to the reality of the experience.

I look back on that despairing returned missionary with compassion and would tell him that things did indeed get better, unimaginably so. I only wish I could say that it happened with the love and support of my Mormon tribe. It didn't, and that's a shame. The wagons were circled, to use Carol Lynn Pearson's metaphor, but they were circled with me on the outside.

Honestly, it's their loss. : -)

Of course, one would like to think that times have changed in the intervening three decades since my own time of youthful crisis. I've certainly seen a big change in social attitudes of acceptance for sexual minorities in society generally in this period, and I think the attitude of young, well-educated Mormons has changed dramatically. In fact I think we are now at a point where there is a significant divergence of views between these young, educated Mormons and the general leadership of the Church.

I noticed, for example, that the April 2012 edition of the New Era magazine contains a harshly worded article by Boyd K. Packer that calls gay people "the enemy." (This in a magazine meant for readers as young as twelve years old!) Packer's words focus exclusively on sexual acts and deny the compelling effects of sexual orientation (gay or straight) on the dynamics of human pair bonds. His view is out of touch, and it's harmful to gay youth.

Here's a reaction of another blogger to the New Era article:

It’s all a little confusing. And it’s all a little silly. But it’s just religion, right? It’s not really “real.” It doesn’t really matter that much.

Until I think about a 11-year-old boy, old enough to know he’s different than other boys, crying himself to sleep, wondering “who made me?” Convinced, of course, that God wouldn’t have created a perversion. Or of a grown man, doing his best to talk between sobs, telling us how years ago his bishop had promised him that if he married a young woman he was dating, God would lift the burden of being gay. He did–but God didn’t. I try not to think of what it must be like to believe that an intrinsic part of who you are is a “temptation that must be resisted.” I can’t imagine what it must be like to look into a future with no possibility of sanctioned companionship or intimacy. How much do you have to pray before you get calluses on your knees? How much “love the sinner, but hate the sin” can a person take? When does it all become too much?

But it’s just religion. It’s supposed to be simple and neat and tidy. Theology isn’t about complexity or exceptions. It’s about grand statements. It’s about truth with a capital T. So what if things don’t match up perfectly? So what if a few people fall into the cracks?

I put down The New Era. I log into Facebook. The first link I see is to an obituary of a young man.

He was Mormon, and he was gay. And he killed himself yesterday.


Where are the LDS-produced films, training materials for leaders or public service advertisements that deal compassionately with the issues faced by gay youth? It's crickets chirping, folks. What the LDS hierarchy likes to call "local members" are far ahead of the Church itself.

Via: Mormon Mentality

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Here we go again

The legislature of the state where I live is just about to enact marriage equality for same-sex couples. A number of Republicans have crossed party lines to support the bill. There is good public support for the proposed law, and the governor has pledged to sign it.

In other words, it's only a matter of weeks before Tobi and I will be equal to other couples under state law. (Federal law is another matter.)

Religious conservatives have vowed to place a Prop. 8-style referendum on the November ballot that would reverse the action of the legislature and write discrimination against gay families into our state's constitution.

Powerful out-of-state interests, such as the fact-challenged and unscrupulous National Organization for Marriage (NOM), are swooping in with seemingly limitless funds. It's looking virtually certain that I'm going to have to live through a year of high-profile political campaigning that is specifically targeted against me and my family. To say that I'm not looking forward to it would be an understatement.

Unlike Maine and Minnesota, there are a lot of Mormons where I live, probably as many or more as California as a percentage of the population. A lot of these folks are prosperous and have the means to contribute to lavish political campaigns. What will the LDS Church ask its members to do?

I'm not going to make predictions. My track record on predicting what the LDS leadership will do on this issue is poor. (I was completely blindsided by Prop. 8.) However, it's worth looking at the Church's options.

1- Do nothing. There are expensive billboards all over my town with smiling, racially-diverse faces saying "I'm a Mormon!" Public engagement in controversial, divisive politics would undo every bit of this campaign, and more. The Church might decide that it's just not worth the cost.

As an aside, the folks I've talked to who've seen the mormon.org ads think that they are weird and creepy. People are justifiably suspicious of advertising that does not directly state its value proposition. It's what scammers do.

2- Act covertly. The LDS Church could easily act by proxy simply by funding an organization like NOM. Such funds are untraceable. There are existing ties to NOM: the Church helped create this organization back in the Prop. 8 days, and highly-placed Mormons have been on its board of directors. In any case, NOM isn't the only channel the Church might use. There are other ways to work behind the scenes without being detected.

3- Use code words to ensure deniability. The Church might try to have it both ways. We saw this in Minnesota with advice from the pulpit to "Prayerfully read the [anti-gay] Proclamation and vote your conscience." Anyone who has had even brief exposure to Mormon culture knows what a verb in the imperative mood means when modified by the adverb "prayerfully."

4- Repeat the Prop. 8 fiasco. It's possible that the Church could turn its meetinghouses into precinct halls as it did in California. As hard as it is to believe, they might willingly sign up to repeat the Prop. 8 PR train wreck.

So that covers what the LDS Church might do. But a more important question is what I should do. Clearly, this is an issue that is close to me. So far I've committed to donate money to the cause of marriage equality, and I may end up on the phone banks if my stomach can take it.

But I have another thought, which I want to throw out for consideration, dear readers. It's an idea so crazy it just might work.

What if I went back to church?

The idea is this: attend sacrament meeting for the four months before the election. I (and any who joined me) would simply be present during the meetings on a weekly basis. If I did this, I'd make sure to be extremely quiet and respectful. If the folks at the pulpit wanted to speak against me and my family, they'd have to do it to my face. If I had a chance to meet any of the members or leaders personally (for example, in the foyer afterwards), I'd be open to hearing them out and might even invite them to dinner at my home if I got to know them a bit.

I think I'm at a point with my Mormon identity where I could do this. I feel no need to challenge anyone on points of doctrine or any other topic. I just want members of my tribe to look me in the eye and say whatever they have to say to my face.

One glitch is that Tobi has a very bad impression of Mormons. I'm pretty sure he'd rather swim in a sewage pond than step foot in an LDS chapel, and I'm not sure how he'd react to LDS dinner guests. He might have to stay out of this plan.

What do you guys think? Is this a horrible idea? Does it have a possibility of doing any good? Would I just be signing myself up for unproductive conflict?

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Losing one's religion

I just spent some time watching an "exit interview" with a CES instructor and his wife who recently resigned from the LDS Church. I highly recommend it. It's a great window into the conflicts that many orthodox members of the Church experience, especially with respect to the Church's rejection of gay people. I found it interesting that the couple's disaffection began with cognitive dissonance about a friendship they formed with a gay man and his partner.

You can check it out here. If you are a believing, participating member of the Church you might find this interview useful in better understanding what people who leave go through. If you are an unorthodox or secular Mormon, it's required viewing. :- )

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Pet parrot attacks Mormon missionaries

OK, this is just a diversion from our normal fare. It's a short clip (2'38") of a pet parrot who goes after two Mormon missionaries.



I have to say that this brought back some memories. A missionary companion and I were once attacked by two geese with serious anger issues. Ah, the memories!

Via: Reuben's Cube

Monday, December 12, 2011

Toward a post-heterosexual Mormon theology

One of the big Mormon blogs had a discussion on a recent Dialogue article that explored the potential for a gay-affirming version of LDS theology. It took me a couple of hours to read the article and the long thread of comments. It is an interesting presentation and discussion. If you have a couple of hours to burn, check it out.

The article questions whether gender exists and if it exists whether it is eternal. It then argues that if gender is not an essential, eternal attribute of a person, our expectations for straights-only exaltation might be open to revision. (This is a gross abbreviation of a much longer argument.)

Here’s my reaction, for what it’s worth. I’m not sure the point we should be considering is whether gender matters or is eternal. I think it’s pretty obvious that gender matters– if it didn’t then gay Mormons would just marry members of the opposite sex and those marriages would do as well as any others, or equivalently, it would easy for straight people to successfully marry members of the same sex. Clearly, this is not the case. When it comes to the formation of durable pair bonds, gender matters. A lot. We shouldn’t be arguing for the elimination or negation of gender.

It’s also easy to imagine that gender identity persists in the hereafter. LDS tradition tells us that there will be a continuity of personality and identity between our mortal and post-mortal selves. Given how deeply rooted gender identity and sexual orientation seem to be in people, this doesn’t seem like much of a stretch for Mormons to accept theologically. Eternal life where we are not “ourselves” is something other than eternal life.

I guess my question on the theological issue is how eternal the concept of patriarchy might be. Using Wikipedia’s definition, in patriarchy "the role of the male as the primary authority figure is central to social organization." In other words, it’s not so much that gender exists and is important to relationships, it’s whether gender disqualifies a person from participation in all aspects of society, including marriage and social leadership. This is a much, much bigger issue than just how we treat gay people.

It's interesting to note that there is a strict correlation across cultures in how women and homosexuals are treated. Compare, for example, Holland versus Saudi Arabia. In strongly patriarchal cultures like Saudi Arabia women are excluded from public life, and homosexuals are put to death. Cultures that have rejected patriarchy, such as Holland, open their society to participation by women in every way and see families headed by same-sex spouses as equal to all other families. Does the society of the Celestial Kingdom more resemble Holland or Saudi Arabia? Right now, the CK is trending toward the Saudi way of doing things-- our Heavenly Mother is mutely sequestered away, polygamy worthy of the FLDS is still the social order, and gay people are excommunicated from the Kingdom by male agents of a male deity. It couldn't be more of a sausage fest.

Thus, the question isn't whether gender is eternal, it's whether eternity is led by the male gender.

Of course, there is an ongoing conversation in Mormon culture on this topic. It is one of Mormonism’s central tensions right now. The earthly church is straining in the direction of Holland even as the folks with their hands on the tiller are pointing it toward Saudi Arabia.

I'm an optimist. The winds will prevail. Tulips and cheese are in our future.