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Old Testament Weirdness

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In the comments to yesterday's post on Brokeback Mountain, CL Hanson notes that she learned at BYU that "in [Mormon] culture woman is the disposable person." That's something learned in college myself, albeit in a bible lit class, when I read this gruesome story in Judges 19, which I'm going to tell now, and then we're going to take a break from this topic, since it doesn't seem wildly popular. [OK, I lied: there's a followup here.] Plus, I'm almost done with the paper and will have time to write about something else for a while. But here it is, without further ado, one of the grossest stories from the Old Testament:

In Judges 19, we get the story of a Levite from Mount Ephriam whose concubine leaves him in order to return to her parents' house, an activity labeled "playing the whore against him," or valuing her own desires above his. The Levite eventually goes to fetch his concubine, and on their journey home they stop in Gibeah, where the men are "Benjaminites," meaning both that they are of the tribe of Benjamin and that they have sex with other men. The Levite sets up camp in the street of a city, only to be implored by an old man not to lodge there--instead, the old man offers the couple shelter for the night.

Beginning in verse 22, we read

Now as they were making their hearts merry, behold, the men of the city, certain sons of Belial, beset the house round about, and beat at the door, and spake to the master of the house, the old man, saying, Bring forth the man that came into thine house, that we may know him. [Note: in case you don't get it, they're using "know" in the biblical sense, this being the bible and all.]

[23] And the man, the master of the house, went out unto them, Nay, my brethren, nay, I pray you, do not so wickedly; seeing that this man is come into mine house, do not this folly.

[24] Behold, here is my daughter a maiden, and his concubine; them I will bring out now, and humble ye them, and do with them what seemeth good unto you: but unto this man do not so vile a thing.

Brokeback Mountain

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Here's a follow-up to yesterday's post, more on what I want to discuss at Sunstone this year. This is a topic I've already explored on my blog, in entries entitled Mormon Social Taboos, A Happy Marriage with a Good Man, and The Exclusive Terroritory of Straight Men.

It ain't gonna be pretty, that's for sure.

Over Christmas I went to see Brokeback Mountain with Saviour Onassis while we were both in Arizona for the holidays. I was staying with my sister, who is both a dutiful Mormon who avoids R-rated movies, and a devoted and knowledgeable fan of good cinema. She knew she wouldn't be seeing the movie, but she wanted to hear all about it when I got home. "Is it really as good as they say?" she asked.

"It really is," I said. "Heath Ledger is amazing. He deserves an Oscar." (He was robbed, by the way. So was Jake.) "He reminded me of some of our cousins," I told her. "He does a thoroughly convincing job of playing a taciturn western cowboy."

"I hear both characters have wives," she said.

The Society of Buggers

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The entry below is part of my attempt to shape material for a panel I'm moderating/presenting on at Sunstone next week. The title of the panel is "Will, Grace, and Angels in Brokeback America: Straight Women, Gay Men, and Mormonism." I can already tell I will have too much to say--I always do--and am worrying about how to cover what's most important. I will be grateful for any suggestions on how to deal with this material.

"The society of buggers has many advantages--if you are a woman," declares Virginia Woolf in her memoir "Old Bloomsbury."

It is simple, it is honest, it makes one feel, as I noted, in some respects at one's ease. But it has this drawback--with buggers one cannot, as nurses say, show off. Something is always suppressed, held down. Yet this showing off, which is not copulating, necessarily, nor altogether being in love, is one of the great delights, one of the chief necessities of life. Only then does all effort cease; one ceases to be honest, one ceases to be clever. One fizzes up into some absurd delightful effervescence of soda water or champagne through which one sees the world tinged with all the colours of the rainbow. It is significant of what I had come to desire that I went straight--on almost the next page of my diary indeed--from the dim and discreet rooms of James Strachey [one of her brother's gay classmates] at Cambridge to dine with Lady Ottoline Morrel at Bedford Square. Her rooms, I noted without drawing any inferences, seemed to me instantly full of "lustre and illusion."

Woolf arrives at this conclusion after trying to puzzle out why certain of her brother Thoby's university classmates, who would visit the home she kept with Thoby and their sister Vanessa, were simultaneously brilliant and boring, gifted and barren, why certain "young men [made] one feel that one could not honestly be anything? The answer to all my questions was, obviously--as you will have guessed--that there was no physical attraction between us."

Here's the bit of satire I promised yesterday. This piece was originally published in The Sugar Beet, a website of Mormon satire, in 2002. I got in a spot of trouble for it--plenty of people couldn't understand why anyone would attack a document claiming that "that the disintegration of the family [caused by things like uppity women and gay people wanting to get married] will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets." But I still feel the attitudes I mock here deserve to be mocked.

You can still find the original version on the web if you want to go looking for it. The version below differs slightly from the earlier one: I've changed a sentence in the third paragraph because I am a compulsive fact-checker (that's one reason I had to leave the Mormon church: its facts don't check) and discovered that my original summary of McKinney's defense was incomplete, so I had to fix it.

(Salt Lake City, UT) October 11 was National Coming Out Day, a day on which gays and lesbians admit their sexual identity to themselves and others. In a show of support for the day, the Church issued a statement condemning homophobia. "Homophobia is un-Christlike," a spokesperson for the Church said. "We can't tolerate or condone violence against so-called gays and lesbians, even when they do something so heinous and disgusting as to insist that their perverse desires are actual parts of their eternal, god-given identities."

The spokesperson went on to say, "Remember, these people are sons and daughters of God, and are welcome as members of the church, as long as they do not imagine that they have any right to find happiness and companionship in a relationship with someone of their same sex, as God finds that utterly repugnant. We must do all we can to help these unfortunate people see that they are violating their divine natures, as well as the divine decrees of God, by ever imagining that there is nothing grotesque, obscene and evil about same-sex relationships. And pistol-whipping them and leaving them to die by the side of the road doesn't really help in that mission."

The mention of pistol-whipping was a reference to Matthew Wayne Shepard, a 21-year-old openly gay student at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6,1998, Shepard was beaten, tied to a fence on a remote highway in Wyoming, and left to die by several young people, one of whom, Aaron McKinney, was LDS. Shepard died of his injuries on October 12, 1998. McKinney did not deny that he kidnapped, robbed and beat Shepard, or that he pretended to be gay in order to lure Shepard into leaving with him; his defense was that he intended only to kidnap and rob Shepard, not to kill him, but flew into a rage when Shepard "fell" for the gay act and grabbed McKinney's genitals. McKinney was eventually convicted of felony murder. He received visits from home teachers up until the conviction.

Many members of the Church responded with support for the statement. "We shouldn't kill those 'so-called gays and lesbians,' to use a phrase you hear at Church, even though it would do the world a lot of good to get rid of them once and for all," said Marjorie Kimball, 34, of Walnut Creek, California. "Have you ever walked down Castro Street in San Francisco? It's disgusting. But taking a gun and cleaning out the whole area really isn't what God intends, since he can just wait until they all die of AIDS and then send them straight to hell."

Mark Jefferson, 42, of Madison, Wisconsin, stated, "In a really liberal place like Madison, where you can end up being friends with people who are gay or lesbian and kind of grow to care about them before you even know certain things about them, it can be hard to keep in mind how wrong homosexuality really is. It's a good thing we have the Proclamation on the Family up in our house, to remind me 'that the disintegration of the family will bring upon individuals, communities, and nations the calamities foretold by ancient and modern prophets.' It's kind of weird to realize that all the terrorist attacks and the impending war in Iraq are a result of efforts in Hawaii and California and Vermont to legalize gay marriage. But even though these people are bringing about Armageddon, we have to try to forgive them anyway and hope they go straight before it's too late."

A practicing, believing Mormon I've collaborated with on a couple of projects has posted something on his blog about how, although he doesn't think he's a homophobe because he has been friends with gay people and recently drank decaf with a gay man in his own kitchen, still, he's upset about Brokeback Mountain because

there's something about homosexuality that always makes me think of the Roman empire crumbling and stuff like that. It seems to come to a head pretty late in a civilization's decline, By the time it becomes prominent, I think it's equivalent to the bruises you start to see on a piece of overripe fruit. It represents a new, deeper level of decay.

He acknowledges that there are probably

many individuals for whom homosexuality does not seem like a choice. But I think there are as many or more people for whom homosexuality is an option but not a foregone conclusion (in other words, they're in the middle of that 6-point spectrum used to rank homo vs. hetero). I haven't seen [Brokeback Mountain] yet, but I think depictions like this that get people thinking about homosexuality will cause many to go ahead and explore it, whereas they probably never would've if society kept a better cap on it.

He goes on to conclude that

deep down, I'm alarmed. I see more bruises forming on the fruit. I think we're in trouble. To mix in another metaphor, compared to the heterosexual sexual revolution of the '60s, I think the gay movement is like crack cocaine next to pot, in terms of potential to ruin people's lives and upset the right balance of things. (emphasis added.)

Before discussing this further, I want to say that I'm sure there are many individuals for whom homophobia does not seem like a choice. But I think there are as many or more people for whom homophobia is an option but not a foregone conclusion (in other words, they're in the middle of that 6-point spectrum used to rank homophobia vs. tolerance). Having spent 26 years as a practicing Mormon and seen Mormon homophobia in action up close, I think the post by this guy is a perfect example of how religious doctrine that justifies homophobia will cause many people to go ahead and explore it, whereas they probably never would've if society kept a better cap on it.

The author of the post I quote here, for instance, probably started out as a two or a three--more tolerant than not. But years of indoctrination into the Mormon church have helped him become an advocate of one of the most dangerous threats to all humanity: ignorant intolerance dressed in the guise of righteous religion.

Reading the post upset me profoundly, because this is someone I work with, and not only is his message homophobic and bigoted, his logic sucks: he feels justified in announcing his conviction that the gay movement is extreme in its "potential to ruin people's lives and upset the right balance of things"; he expresses openly his dire fears and grievous worries that acceptance of homosexuality will hasten some sort of dangerous, dreadful moral decay--but he rejects the label of homophobe! And this despite the fact that homophobia means "an irrational fear of homosexuality and homosexuals." Given that he proclaims his uh, righteous fears of homosexuality's threat to virtuous, upstanding society, given how overwrought, paranoid and hyperbolic his fears are (what the hell is he doing invoking the fall of the Roman empire? I thought that had to do with putting an emperor in charge of the government, and with the fact that the Goths sacked the capital.... Then there's the fact that the Greeks accepted homosexuality, and they are, after all, the basis for what we in the Western world call civilization), he seems to fit the definition of a homophobe to a rigid, straight H--OK, he's not a virulent, rampaging homophobe, just a mild, meandering one, looking for rotten fruit in the garden of life, blaming the rot on others--god forbid he consider the possibility that HE and his beliefs are responsible for such things.

How can he fail to see that he is a homophobe? Why is he willing to embrace thoroughly homophobic attitudes, but not the label that goes with them? (I do wonder why people are afraid of being labeled a bigot, but not of actually being one. I also wonder why they aren't afraid to reveal such thoroughly inadequate thinking, so that they end up seeming not only bigoted, but unable to follow clear reason.)

I also found the post profoundly ironic, because one of the projects I worked with him on was The Sugar Beet, a website of Mormon satire modeled on The Onion. And when I wrote for the Sugar Beet, I got in a little trouble for a piece I produced to assuage some of the grief and shame I felt when I learned that Aaron McKinney, one of Matthew Shepard's murderers, had grown up Mormon and received officially sanctioned visits from representatives of the Mormon church up until his conviction--at which time the visits ceased and he got excommunicated, because you can't be a convicted felon and a practicing Mormon, any more than you can be an uncloseted homosexual and a practicing Mormon.

I've had people tell me--make that, I've had Mormons tells me--in all seriousness, that homosexuality is a sin akin to murder--and the treatment McKinney received pretty much demonstrates that, at least in the view of the Mormon church, that's true.

And omigod, it's not attitudes like that that will cause the end of civilization! It's not bigotry and greed and vicious illegal wars and wanton devastation of the environment that will destroy the United States--no, it's the fact that there are people in this country who think it's OK to choose a same-sex relationship.

Good god, that is so FUCKED UP.

I'll post the story from the Sugar Beet tomorrow.

Sixteen days from today, England will allow its first gay marriages to take place. I remember reading in Austen novels about people going to Gretna Green, just over the border in Scotland, and soon realized it was a euphemism for eloping, about like "running off to Vegas. " I don't remember the details, but I learned that Scotland had different marriages laws than England--the bride could be younger, for one thing, and there might not have been this "cooling off" period England requires now.

Couples in England who want to marry as soon as the new law kicks in need to register today, so that they will have waited out a mandatory 15-day opportunity reflect on the question of "Do I REALLY want to vow publicly to live out the rest of my life with this person I've just spent six months planning a wedding with?"

The legalization is having all kinds of ramifications, and I don't mean that it's making right-wing religious wackos emerge from the comfort of their living rooms with pitchforks and picket signs in hand. No, retailers are stepping up to embrace the change, because it's "expected to generate a multimillion-pound economy in wedding ceremonies, receptions and gifts, with businesses keen to cash in on the market."

There are news stories about this all over the web, including this one from The Independent and this one from 365gay.com.

Many stories mention the responses of various churches to the event:

Some religions are getting involved, with the Liberal Judaism sect the first to offer a liturgy for partnership ceremonies, while the Methodist church is currently conducting a review of ways in which it could offer blessing services for same-sex couples.

The Church of England has ruled that clergy should not hold official blessing services for couples, but can pray for them.

That's a funky response from a religion whose beginning was all wrapped up in one man's desire to change marriage laws. It's about like the Mormon church's defense of traditional marriage even though its doctrines claim that polygamy is an unchangeable law of God humanity must submit to if it wants to be redeemed.

This story from Reuter's claims that the union is not a marriage, because "Civil partnership is formed when a couple sign certain documents in an exclusively civil procedure, whereas a marriage becomes binding when partners exchange spoken words in a civil or religious ceremony." All the other stories I've read refer to what gay couples will achieve on December 21 as "marriage."

But the Reuter's article also mentions that "The Church of England has provoked fury among Anglican traditionalists by allowing gay priests to register under the new civil partnership law as long as they remain celibate." You can get married, but can't sleep with your partner? Whatever.

The Exclusive Territory of Straight Men

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There are lots of posts on this topic. They are, in order of posting, Mormon Social Taboos, A Happy Marriage with a Good Man, the post you're reading right now, The Society of Buggers, Brokeback Mountain, Old Testament Weirdness, It's Not Just Mormon Men Who Don't Want to Lose the Beard, The SL Tribune Joins the Chorus, Will, Grace and Angels in Brokeback America: Straight Women, Gay Men and Mormonism (the introduction), Will, Grace and Angels in Brokeback America: Straight Women, Gay Men and Mormonism (the excerpt), Marriage Manifesto, The Ex-Exes from Exodus and the Agency of Gay Men, Sex, Misogyny and My Blog Stats, Narcissism and Misogyny, and Really Long Comment, In Which I Disavow the Cow Part.

Let me quote a paragraph from the essay by Ben Christensen in the most recent Dialogue that upset me so.

I don't understand people who call themselves liberal and progressive but are threatened by homosexual reparative therapy enough to try to stop people like me from having that option. In my mind, this kind of thinking is anti-progressive. The whole point of the civil rights and women's liberation movements was to allow blacks, women, and other minorities to break free of what had been their traditional roles. We live in a world where it's okay for blacks to do what was once considered "white" and for women to do what was once considered "male"--get an education, have a career, etc. Why then is it not politically correct for a gay man to venture into what is usually considered the exclusive territory of straight men--to marry a woman and have a family--if that's what he chooses to do?

God, where do you even start with a paragraph like that.

I guess I'll do this sentence by sentence.

A Happy Marriage with a Good Man

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Here's something from "Confessions of a Mormon Boy: An Autobiographical One-Man Play Written, Created and Performed by Steven Fales" (SUNSTONE December 2003). After serving a mission for the Mormon Church, Mr. Fales told his female best friend he was gay, then proposed. She accepted; they married, and stayed married for six years, until his "same sex attraction," to use the Mormon term, put too great a strain on the marriage.

As the divorce got closer, I got confused and scared. I didn't know how to be alone, and I didn't want to give up "hugging time." Emily and I shared a tradition her parents had started. You know how early kids wake up? Well, we would try to sleep in--trying to put off their needs as long as we could. Then, when we couldn't put it off any longer, we'd yet out, "HUGGING TIME!" In our two children would run and jump on the bed. We would then hug and kiss and snuggle--all warm and safe and happy. How many gay men get to experience that? Let alone watch their children being born. Couldn't I give it all up for the sake of hugging time? I was going to fight for hugging time!

I turned it all on Emily. It was her fault! She never wore lingerie! [Never mind that Mormonism has its own ugly underwear faithful members are required to wear.] She wouldn't watch the better-sex videos I ordered from the back of GQ. Emily knew going into this marriage it might come to this. And now that I've finally cracked, she's going to just throw me out?! How dare she watch Will & Grace and laugh when I was trying to change! She had failed me!

Mormon Social Taboos

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Tuesday evening I got home from work and found a load of mail, including two cd's of original (and spectacularly good) music from Wayne, and the Fall 2005 issue of Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. This is one of the primary publications of liberal Mormonism, and I've subscribed (and published in it) for years. I sat down to my dinner and watched part of a movie, took care of some teaching stuff, had a bath. Then I picked up the issue of Dialogue and checked the table of contents, and found this:

GETTING OUT/STAYING IN: ONE MORMON STRAIGHT/GAY MARRIAGE

Getting Out by Ben Christensen 121

Homosexual Attraction and LDS Marriage Decisions by Ron Schow 133

Thoughts of a Therapist by Marybeth Raynes 143

Staying In by Ben Christensen 148

I gave the section a cursory scan--that was about all I could bear--then went to bed. I fell asleep quickly, stayed asleep for an hour, got up and read Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun for a class I'm teaching on war literature (because after the Dialogue thing, I needed something cheerful and lighthearted), tried to medicate myself into oblivion, eventually succeeded.

Wednesday morning I got up and reread the whole section carefully.

Here is what Ben Christensen, a 24-year-old gay Mormon married to a woman by whom he has fathered a nine-month-old daughter, has to say about the fact that he can't mention to his friends that he "can't stop thinking about this guy in religion class":" "It ticks me off that Mormon social taboos force me to lie about who I am."

Mormon social taboos.

That's what's to blame for the fact that he can't discuss his same sex attraction: Mormon social taboos.

Not Mormon doctrine. Mormon social taboos.

Nothing wrong with the doctrine--which says that homosexual behavior is a sin; no, it's just Mormon social taboos.

If you're not Mormon, you have no idea how big this issue is. Many religions venerate celibacy; many other religions tolerate it. Not Mormonism. Celibacy is unnatural; sex before marriage is, according to some leaders in the church (and one of my friends from college, one of the very few people whom I will never again speak to), a sin akin to MURDER (that's right: sex before marriage is the moral equivalent of killing someone in cold blood); and the entire reason we are sent to earth is to get bodies, have sex, and create children. So there's some room in many other religions for reconciling religious faith and homosexuality by choosing celibacy, but almost none in Mormonism--at least, not if you want to be respectable and happy.

Christensen writes of his engagement to Jessie, who knows about his attraction to men, that

Difficulties arose fairly quickly.... It bothered Jessie that she was usually more interested in kissing than I was. This bothered me too, but I didn't know what to do about it. I definitely loved her, and out of that love an attraction was growing, but to be honest it was nothing compared to the strong desire I had for men. But then it's not accurate to even compare the two feelings. My attraction to Jessie, the drive that made me want to hold her in my arms and feel her body next to mine, came entirely from my heart. On the other hand, the drive that made me want to feel a man's body next to mine was purely a libido thing. I've never allowed a physical attraction to a man to become any more than just that. Apples and oranges.

He marries Jessie for a variety of reasons, one of which is that "God told [him] to." Another is that he feels his only two alternatives are a conventional, monogamous straight Mormon marriage on the one hand and "[running] off to San Francisco and [embracing] a rampant life of unrestrained queerness" on the other.

A year later, at the ripe old age of 25, he is able to critique his earlier essay and the responses to it, by writing

Critiquing my essay, a friend asked, "Can you really separate love and sex so easily? I can't." I discarded his concern, believing I had a deeper understanding of love and sex. After all, he writes novels about missionaries who fornicate and teenaged boys who make out with cow udders. For me, the distinction between love and sex was clear. As I've become more honest with myself, though, I see that Marybeth states my dilemma more accurately when she says that people in my situation choose "between a deep love and erotic attachment plus love." This choice is a good deal more difficult than the over-simplified choice I thought I was making. By choosing heterosexual marriage, I've denied myself the experience of loving someone I am naturally attracted to and my wife the experience of loving someone who is naturally attracted to her.

Glad he figured that out eventually.

Aside from a few lines of dialogue in which Jessie reassures the author that she still wants to marry him despite the fact that he is gay, we never get to hear from her.

Ron Schow and Marybeth Raynes, the two respondents, are very respectful of the deliberate choices Ben Christensen is making at the same time they underscore the challenges and difficulties he is setting himself up for. Perhaps I might respect those choices more myself if I hadn't heard it all before, some of it almost verbatim. I'll never forget being told by the love of my life, "Look, I'm not really gay, and I still want to marry a woman. It's just that I prefer sex with men to sex with women." I could think of no response to that statement.

I'm grateful for my two closest friends on earth, both of whom are gay (formerly Mormon) men, and I'm also grateful that neither of them married me.

I'm not done.

Answering My Own Question

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The church's approach to homosexuality is to "hate sin but love the sinner." For a long time that was my approach to the church: I hated the sexism, the racism, the homophobia of the church; I hated its smug certainty, its foolish and self-defeating attempts to stifle creativity and questioning; I hated its more illogical and vicious doctrines; I hated and I still hate the Book of Mormon, which lacks the linguistic beauty, the human diversity and the spiritual complexity of the Bible. But I told myself that I loved the church: Loved the community, loved the heritage of sacrifice and striving, loved the hymns, loved the habits of discipline and self-control I was taught to cultivate. The problem, I eventually had to acknowledge, was that the church simply would not let me love the sinner while hating the sin: I had to love the sin as well; in fact, I had to convince myself that the sins were not sins at all, but were instead God's righteous decrees, and that by not loving them, I was the sinner.

And trips to Utah are traumatic because there, I encounter people who want--oh so generously, oh so magnanimously!--to help me see how I've sinned against God's righteous decrees, and bring me back to a fold I cannot survive in.

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