In his introduction to Latter-Gay Saints, Gerald S. Argetsinger explains that this collection of gay Mormon fiction came together because another project failed to come to fruition. Argetsinger, an Associate Professor of Cultural and Creative Studies at the National Institute for the Deaf at Rochester Institute of Technology, had been recruited to contribute a chapter on gay Mormon literature for an academic survey of representations of Mormons in popular culture. Although that collection did not materialize, in preparing his contribution, Argetsinger discovered a rich trove of material and, more importantly, found his curiosity piqued. And so, the Gay Mormon Literature Project was born. And from it, Latter-Gay Saints, which includes memoirs and short stories, excerpts from novels and plays, and a lengthy bibliography of literary and scholarly sources. Many of the contributions are beautifully rendered, fully realized, funny, haunting, memorable narratives of people struggling with the challenges of relationships-over-time; the possibilities and traumas of religious identity; the tantalizing, terrifying charge of sexuality, and the fact of human mortality. And while many of the stories and authors included in this collection deserve attention for their work, having read the entire collection, I’m left wondering whether it works as a collection—as a collection focused on gay Mormon experience and identity.
Three of the contributions that most engaged me as a reader dealt with marriages between gay Mormon men and their straight wives. Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner’s “Strong Like Water” tells the story of a daughter caring for her ailing mother. A mother who deeply loves her son-in-law and who is falling, more and more rapidly each day, into dementia. The protagonist of this story, Karmine, we are told in its opening lines, learns that her husband has been having an affair around the same time her mother’s health starts declining. The complex way her husband stays present and supportive as Karmine cares for her mother, often intervening in ways she cannot, because of her mother’s affection for him, reveals something beautiful and important about relationships that endure over time, whether or not authentic sexual desire is their foundation. There is an aside at the beginning of the story about Karmine’s conversion to her husband’s Mormonism, but neither religion generally nor Mormonism specifically are in any way explored, or thematized, or essential to the story. In fact, those lines could be edited out and the story would lose none of its coherence or power. Similarly, Bernard Cooper’s “Hunters and Gatherers” tells the tale of Rick, who has been asked to attend a rather odd party at the suburban home of the Pillings. The Pillings are trying to make peace with the husband’s homosexuality and have decided to do this by inviting all of the couple’s gay friends over for a dinner party. While Cooper handles the awkwardness of this set-up deftly, the heart of his story, which he handles with as much care and talent, is Rick’s memory of his lover’s death from AIDS and Rick’s unexpected kindling of a new romance as a result of this party. Jerry Pilling’s commitment to his marriage, despite his homosexuality, is explained as part of his commitment to Mormonism, but he could have as easily been a conservative Evangelical Christian, a Catholic, or a Jew and the story itself would have worked. Again, Mormonism is color rather than theme. And, finally, in one of the playscript entries, Eric Samuelson’s “Duets,” we find three women, all members of their local Mormon congregation’s choir, grappling with what it means to find joy in making music, especially when making music might be the only way to be together with a husband who is gay. The slightly distanced, almost reporter-like narrative voices of this piece make it quite special and effective. Here, religion, religious practice, religious community, religious belonging and what is made possible by them is certainly necessary to how the story unfolds, but, again, it was unclear how Mormonism was necessary (especially since the song “Morning is Broken,” specifically identified as lying outside the Mormon tradition, plays a key role in the story).
Michael Fillerup’s “The Seduction of H. Lyman Winger” also engages religion sympathetically. Fillerup tells of a pastor who counsels a young gay man with AIDS who forces a local Mormon congregation to take seriously the call of Jesus to love the outcast, the leper, the “least of these.” The story concludes in a way that makes it unclear whether this young man is a real person, an angel, an avatar of Jesus, but it does movingly recount a person of faith struggling with the meaning of that faith in a genuine way, and realizing that his faith might demand that he treat gay people with more respect, compassion and understanding than he has been. Here, the allusion to visions and angel visitants might “sound” to a Mormon reader differently than it did to me, but it seemed that the story could be easily translated into other religious dialects. Donna Banta tells a familiar story of religious corruption and hypocrisy. In “The Call,” a Mormon bishop murders a missionary in his charge after finding out he is gay. He stages the body to make the death look like a hate crime in order to generate sympathy for Mormons, who are being criticized for their stance against gay marriage. Banta does rightly note the long history of persecution of Mormons in American history. While Banta’s narrative is problematically far-fetched, her gift for neo-noir prose and characterization made her story captivating. As a reader, I wanted more stories about her detective-protagonist. And while her religious fanatic foil happens to be Mormon, it was unclear that he had to be Mormon.
Other stories come closer to making Mormonism key to their tale. Johnny Townsend’s “Partying with St. Roch” tells a beautiful, haunting tale of a young man scouring the city to find generic cola to feed the odd addiction of his AIDS-stricken lover. Townsend’s characters are ex-Mormons and his protagonist very consciously struggles with the messages he learned from his religious upbringing. His characters entertain each other by (re)telling stories from their mission trips. And, at the end of Townsend’s story, there is a suggestion that his protagonist might return to the “comforts” of religion to negotiate the horrors of his present. Levi S. Peterson’s “The Dream” tells about a retired academic haunted by a dream that causes him to question his gender identity. As a Mormon, this question about identity is particularly troubling given his belief that human beings are assigned gender during their pre-existence. Peterson’s story, notable for the way in which it captures the worries that can come only in the twilight years of life and the ways that relationships take shape over decades, is the only story in the collection that makes an element of Mormon theology and practice essential to plot and character development. Ken Shakin’s “Strange Bedfellows” is a narrative imagining of the practice that might have occurred in relation to Joseph Smith’s purported statement that it was good for male friends to “lie down together” in intimate embrace at night. While there is certainly a historical Mormon grounding for Shakin’s story, there is no specific Mormon reference in it—and it could just as easily be understood as a meditation on Abraham Lincoln’s letters or Walt Whitman’s poems, or any of a number of nineteenth-century statements about homosocial intimacy.
Because it is an excerpt from a novel, Dick Vanden’s “Gay Messiah,” which recounts finding Jesus, in a very real way, in a gay bathhouse, might seem more engaged with Mormonism in its original form. As it is edited in this collection, but for a single reference to Joseph Smith in its closing lines, it could just as easily have been written by a Jesus Freak or a charismatic Catholic. And the excerpt “Wait!,” from a play by Julie Jensen, seems even more bizarrely grafted onto the gay Mormon tree. While this contribution is welcome not only for its Christopher-Durang-esque humor, but also for its sole representation of a lesbian character (who, at least according to this excerpt, doesn’t appear to be Mormon), the only connection to Mormonism is a reference to the angel Moroni—an offhanded reference at that. Similarly, Ron Oliver’s “Nestle’s Revenge”—another contribution from the absurdist comic camp, which was a bit too long to be fully successful—includes Mormons only as murder victims. Similarly, David Leavitt’s “The Term Paper Artist” uses a single character’s Mormonism as a stand-in for a guilty conscience. Leavitt’s story, the longest in the collection (by far), while plagued by a self-indulgent anxiety regarding authorial authenticity that has haunted his work for years now, contains all the grace, humor, and humanity for which Leavitt is so often praised and justifiably famous. Jeff Laver’s “Peter’s Mirror,” a first-person memoir-like account of a gay Mormon growing up in Peru who turns to prostitution during his teen years, is also an exceptionally well realized, haunting, captivating, beautiful character study. But, as with the other strongest pieces in the collection, it’s unclear how Mormonism is central to the success of the tale. Argetsinger describes his process of gathering materials like a “treasure hunt” in the introduction; for some of the pieces included, however, it felt a bit more like the result of a Google search.
In the stories that comprise the first third of the collection, the experience of the Mormon mission is central. Although adherents of other religious traditions engage in missionizing work, this work is not as ubiquitous, formative or closely associated with the tradition as is the Mormon mission. In these tales, the collection participates in the Mormon erotica tradition that Argetsinger distances the anthology from in his introduction. When reading these stories, and their narratives of the homoerotic charge of male-segregated environments, I couldn’t help but think of the theoretical work of Eve Sedgwick, as well as Mark Jordan’s work on Catholic liturgy and Sandy Dubowski’s work on yeshiva culture. Understanding the complex ways that conservative, homophobic institutions foster and facilitate homoerotic desire is a phenomena that merits attention.
As he lays out a history of representations of gay Mormons in his introduction, Argetsinger makes an intriguing observation about the authors of such work—namely, that for the most well-known artistic engagements with Mormonism and homosexuality, their authors are not Mormon. (Think Tony Kushner.) “Was it possible that non-Mormons were more interested in the notion of Mormons and homosexuality than GLBT Mormons themselves?” Is it possible that I brought to this collection, as a non-Mormon, a certain voyeuristic desire? Was I wanting something more than off-handed references to missions and bishops and the Book of Mormon because I want access to the “exotic” secret practices of Mormons? At the end of the day, as much as I enjoyed some of the individual contributions, was I disappointed in the collection as a whole because it was not collected for me? Given the dearth of representations of gay Mormons (and, Argetsinger means “gay,” as in male—there are no Mormon lesbians here) in mass culture, is it enough to collect familiar stories of teenage experimentation, drunken sexual romps, traumatic comings out with Mormon verbiage as trappings? Possibly. Mormon readers may resonate with this collection in a way that I simply cannot because they will feel seen and recognized; they will understand subtle allusions and references that are lost on me. They will feel that a world they inhabit(ed) in isolation is now a place for collective existence. And, just so it is absolutely clear, let me underscore: the non-Mormon reader will find much pleasure in reading the stories collected here. Many of the stories and authors included in this volume, as noted above, deserve to find broader audiences. But the reader of this collection will not find her or his longing for a rich, nuanced, complex picture of gay Mormon life satisfied. But, as Argetsinger’s story of this collection’s origins remind us, projects spawn projects. Who knows what the next gathering of gay Mormon voices will reveal.
Reviewed by Kent Brintnall