Zelophehad’s Daughters

Mormon Gays in Mormon Plays: How Mormon Playwrights Portray Gay and Lesbian Mormons, Part I

Posted by Katya

Note: I originally intended to make this all one post, then realized that it was over 3,000 words long, so I’m splitting the topic into multiple posts.

A few weeks ago, I learned that a friend of mine is raising money to stage a production of Melissa Leilani Larson’s Little Happy Secrets next year. The play is about a lesbian Mormon who is trying to reconcile her sexuality with her faith. (It’s really unfair of me to condense such a thoughtful and nuanced play into a one-sentence summary. I promise I’ll say more about it later, or you can read about it and their fundraising efforts here.) It was staged last year in Provo, but Dave Mortensen (my friend) and Melissa would like to put on a larger production in Salt Lake City.

I decided that I wanted to write a blog post about plays by Mormons with gay and lesbian Mormon characters, both as a way of helping to draw attention to Little Happy Secrets and because of the topicality of how the Mormon community and the GLBT community interact.

By restricting the plays surveyed to those by Mormons playwrights, I’m necessarily leaving out Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, easily the most famous play about a homosexual Mormon, and the winner of two Tony Awards and a Pullizer Prize, to boot.

The omission is deliberate, not because I have any particular axe to grind where Angels in America is concerned, but because I strongly believe that the members of a community need the opportunity to tell their own stories, and I’m tired of seeing so much attention go to non-Mormons writing Mormon characters, while Mormons writing about their own community struggle to find a national audience. Even setting aside no-Mo authors who get basic details wrong about Mormon life (such as Bradford Tice and Andy Greenwald), it’s still very hard to capture the nuances of a cultural mindset if you’ve been raised outside the culture. To quote Jonathan Langford’s review of Angels in America:

Angels in America, as I see it, is not really about Mormonism at all. That is to say, even though it uses symbols from Mormon history and theology and features Mormon characters, it’s not about what it means to be Mormon, even Mormon and gay. . . . When it comes to his characters, it seems to me that Kushner is using Mormons iconically—a rather different thing from presenting them realistically. Not that his Mormon characters aren’t realistic, but I don’t think they’re realistic in their Mormonness. By and large, they don’t act like Mormons, they don’t describe their beliefs in terms that would be terribly familiar to most Mormons, and their religion doesn’t seem to impact their day-to-day lives in the ways that it does for most active Mormons.

Of course, if I’m restricting my choice of plays to those by Mormon authors because I believe that members of a community need to tell their stories, it’s also fair to point out that members of the GLBT community deserve the chance to tell their stories, as well, so one could just as easily choose plays that are only by gay or lesbian authors. It’s a point I concede, but I’ll leave such an analysis as an exercise for the student.

A few general caveats: I must admit that I have not seen any of the plays in question. (Living over 2,000 miles from Utah is a significant drawback for anyone interested in Mormon theater.) I have read scripts for six of the plays, listened to an audio version of one of them, and two more I know of only from articles, press releases, and interviews. (More details will be given in the notes section and bibliography.) In light of this incomplete access to information, I consider this post to be more of a survey and less of a literary critique (much less a review) of the plays in question.

A second caveat is that many of the playwrights or others associated with these plays would probably object to my pigeonholing them all as plays on the same topic. Playwright Devan Hite says of Ranging “The play is not necessarily a ‘gay themed’ play; likewise, it should not be regarded as a play about Mormons.” Gideon Burton says “This is not the Mormon lesbian play” in his review of Little Happy Secrets. And Eric Samuelsen calls Borderlands a play about coming out, “Not just coming out in the usual sense, . . . [but] about all the other ways we come out as Mormons, about admitting that we don’t necessarily believe what we’re supposed to believe, or that we don’t always find it possible to live the way we’re expected to live.”

As a librarian (worse, a cataloger), my stock-in-trade is taking works that are beautiful, unique flowers of creativity and shoving them into some artificially-defined category after a cursory review. However, I feel that I can still understand why a playwright would encourage an audience to focus on the entire message of a play, rather than reducing it to one single (hot-button) issue. That said, I hope that they will forgive me if I take one aspect of their plays and use it as a thread to tie together an otherwise disparate group of works.

For inclusion in this group of plays, my criteria were (1) the play had to include a character who is a gay or lesbian Mormon, (2) the playwright had to be LDS (or formerly LDS), and (3) the play in question had to have been published, produced, or formally presented as a reading. (If you are aware of any plays meeting these criteria that I’ve missed, please let me know.) The plays will be presented chronologically (as nearly as I can determine) by date of premiere. Some plays have undergone significant revision since their premieres. What information I have about these revisions will be given in the notes section.

18 Responses to “Mormon Gays in Mormon Plays: How Mormon Playwrights Portray Gay and Lesbian Mormons, Part I”

  1. 1.

    By and large, they don’t act like Mormons, they don’t describe their beliefs in terms that would be terribly familiar to most Mormons, and their religion doesn’t seem to impact their day-to-day lives in the ways that it does for most active Mormons.

    I have not seen or read the play myself, but I have a number of friends who are gay and raised Mormon who have said that that play absolutely nailed the portrait of Mormonism (and in particular, the Mormon mom reminded them of their own moms).

    Personally, I’m sick of seeing non-believer perspectives marginalized, as though you have to be “active” and faithful to have the right to talk about Mormonism. Even when you’re talking about your own personal experiences or those of people you’re met, the faithful complain and tell themselves you somehow have no business telling your own stories.

    In Kushner’s case, he did his homework/research, and has as much right as anyone else to write fiction that isn’t pure autobiography (like your example that you’re OK with letting straight Mormons write about the gay Mormon experience).

  2. 2.

    Hi chanson! Your concern is legitimate, but I’m not sure it applies to Katya’s approach, since she’s explicitly including former Mormons. The only people being excluded are never-Mormons, which leads me to believe her concern isn’t with faithfulness but with how true the portrayal is to the Mormon experience(s).

    Since I haven’t seen Kushner’s play, I can’t comment on the specifics in this case.

  3. 3.

    I haven’t seen the play, but in the HBO version of Angels, only one of the LDS characters felt Mormon to me. I don’t think it has anything to do with Kushner not being Mormon, I just think he was trying to fit his Mormon characters into preconceived boxes he knew he wanted (or needed ) in Angels.

  4. 4.

    I’m looking forward to reading the rest of this, Katya.

    On Kushner and Angels: I’m very familiar with the text (wrote my MA thesis on it and have taught it several times). In some ways he doesn’t get the Mormonness of his characters very well. There’s no representation of the church to speak of–of devotional habits or of worship services. There’s no Mormon community and my experience of Mormonism is very much caught up in being part of a Mormon community. But there are ways in which he’s spot on. There’s a scene in which Joe and Louis are talking about Joe’s garments as a second skin that can’t be easily removed which rang very true to me. And Joe’s kind of out of control spin as he tries to come to terms with his sexuality felt genuine to me.

    I don’t think one must be Mormon (faithful, practicing, former, whatever) to write well about it. But I do think that it’s a legitimate project to look at how those who are Mormon in one form or another represent that experience. There will be differences. And I think Katya’s complaint that Mormons writing their own experience often do not get a significant audience whereas non-Mormons writing about Mormon characters do (sometimes) command a national audience. (the only exception I really know of is Dustin Lance Black who writes for _Big Love_)

  5. 5.

    I love long incomplete sentences…

    I meant I think Katya’s complaint is legitimate–about Mormon author’s not getting the attention and audience that non-Mormon authors do.

  6. 6.

    .

    Sheez, Carol. What in the world are you mad about? Any survey needs rules to define what is included and what doesn’t. It’s hardly something to throw a fit about. Nevermind your, frankly, ludicrous assertion that anyone is being marginalized. But I don’t want to look back at this comment and discover I was a troll, so feel free to email me if you need to vent more.

    Katya—I’m excited to see what you’ve got. And to see you posting at ZD. Does this mean we’ll get an update on your LibraryThing observations someday too?

    (One thing: you missed the final l in this link. Thanks for the linklove all the same, though.)

  7. 7.

    I’m looking forward to your next installments, Katya. This is making me wish I lived close enough to Utah to see some of these plays.

  8. 8.

    [...] part one I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time but seeing this post on Zelophehad’s Daughters has inspired me to make my post. In the fall of last year, I took a course on Modern American Drama [...]

  9. 9.

    [...] to Zelophad’s Daughter for the excellent posts on the same topic that have inspired me to post this [...]

  10. 10.

    Thank you so much for this post! Reading it has inspired me to post on my Blog a similar paper that I wrote last year for an American Drama class. I look forward to reading your conclusions and thoughts and would love your comments on my paper as well if you get a chance.

  11. 11.

    I have seen Angels in America. It’s a brilliant play. But I also think Jonathan’s piece of criticism about it makes some excellent points especially in relation to non-LDS criticism/reviews. Basically, Kushner has Mormonism stand in for Christian conservatives and picks up on a bit of Mormon language and iconography to do so, but without also bringing Mormon culture, LDS doctrine and LDS church organization in a meaningful way.

    That doesn’t mean that current and former Mormons can’t have personal reactions to the play that are different. Indeed I’d be interested in hearing how and where Kushner “nailed the portrait of Mormonism.”

  12. 12.

    [...] again to Zelophehad’s Daughter for the great post on the [...]

  13. 13.

    Okay, here is what I have.
    Currently Mormon authors:
    Carol Lynn Pearson. Facing East
    Actually features the parents and friend of a gay son, after the son had killed himself. I am sure you are aware of it.

    Eric Samuelsen. Borderlands.

    Formerly Mormon authors:
    Steven Fales: Confessions of A Mormon Boy. Various versions of this one-man biographical show have been performed over the last decade. The script ran in Sunstone, Dec. 2003.

    Steven Fales: Missionary Position. About his missionary days. 2009.

    Wendy Hammond. Julie Johnson. 1991. Dramatists Play Service, 1995. Woman chooses gay independence over marriage. I don’t think the charachters in this are Mormon, but it is based on Hammond’s experiences with choosing between the church and freedom. Made into an independent film, 2001.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julie_Johnson
    Hammond is not gay.

    Julie Jensen. A former Mormon, SLAC writer-in-residence. Lesbian. She has written a ton of plays, some with homosexuals, some with Mormons. I do not remember if any of them (Two-Headed?) has any characters that are both.

    Neil LaBute. Bash : Latterday Plays. 1999. Contains three short plays, one of which, , “A Gaggle of Saints”, appeared as Bash in Sunstone, December 1995. Violent story about a gay-bashing young Mormon, with the subtext that he is gay himself.

    James Rapier. A Peculiar People. 2003. Docu-drama about being gay and HIV Positive in Utah society, similar to The Larime Project. Rapier, who is gay, grew up Mormon, I think.

    Troy Williams and Charles Lynn Frost. The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon.. Campy “one-man” show includes a subplot about the Mormon mother’s gay son.

    Is Matthew Ivan Bennett, who does things at Plan-B, a former Mormon? (Ask Eric Samuelsen, he would know.)

    In fact, ask Eric Samuelsen about any of these plays, he probably knows about them.

    If you widen it to include screenplays, there is C. Jay Cox’s Latter Days.

  14. 14.

    Chanson – I think amelia did a better job of explaining my purpose than I did. I’m not looking to “marginalize” Kushner or anyone else, just to look at a specific subset of plays about gay and lesbian Mormons.

    Th. – Fixed the link. Sorry!

    Daniel – I looked briefly at your paper and it’s definitely a lot more scholarly than mine is. :) I’ll go back and look at it more in depth when I’m done posting here.

    Andrew – Thanks for the list! I had Borderlands, Facing East, Confessions, and Sister Dottie, but the rest are either new to me or ones I overlooked. (I probably won’t rewrite my original post to include them, but I may do a follow-up post with the ones you’ve suggested.)

  15. 15.

    I find it interesting that few homosexuals who choose to be actively LDS rather than actively homosexual tell stories publicly. I suppose that may be about the taboos of the two societies; the LGBT community is very interested in examining the conflict between sexual identity and community of origin, whereas most LDS don’t publicly address certain trials of faith, particularly sexual ones.

    I agree, though, that there is greater merit if the writer has some sort of attachment to both parts of the story, While there are several people I know that have faced this conflict–with a split between their eventual decisions–I’m not close enough to address this topic in a way that would be more than superficial. I hold others up to the same standard–I don’t believe those with only a passing familiarity with LDS doctrine and mormon culture can properly tell that side of such a story.

  16. 16.

    I find it interesting that few homosexuals who choose to be actively LDS rather than actively homosexual tell stories publicly. . . . Most LDS don’t publicly address certain trials of faith, particularly sexual ones.

    There’s also the issue that many Mormons still think that homosexuality is a choice or a curse or synonymous with pedophilia, despite recent statements by Church leaders that are moving away from those misconceptions.

  17. 17.

    I think one reason active LDS gays and lesbians don’t talk about their triumphs in remaining celibate is that generally Mormons don’t appreciate asceticism and abstinence. On one hand, adults who are unmarried are all expected to be practically asexual in the Church. On the other hand, those who aren’t actively dating/forming relationships are looked on as being “weird”. Blog posts about the “pervy mustachioed single men” and “Should I allow my divorced stepdad to babysit his own grandchild?” only serve to illuminate the issue. No single LDS, gay or straight, wants to truly expose his/her near-neuter status by insisting s/he is happy with having no physical contact now or for the rest of one’s mortal life.

  18. 18.

    Also having read Angel In America, I agree with those who have said that its characters don’t resonate as very Mormon. In fact, I disagree that even the ‘second skin” scene seemed authentic. First of all, at the stage his characters is at in his life, and with the choices he had made by that point, he would probably not be wearing them. Second, the way he discussed–it didn’t feel very genuine to how I’ve heard members of the Church discuss their garments.
    And a chain smoking Mormon who works at the visitor’s center? Sure, I believe there are plenty of smoking Mormons, but very few of them would be working at the Vistor’s Center in New York and be worried about other matters of faithfulness as she did.
    From the context of the play, I didn’t get the sense that Kushner did much research into the Church at all (which makes me wonder if that’s why the Vistor’s Center was such a central part of it… that’s about the depth the play went into regarding Church culture).

    The play is a beautifully wriiten show. It’s just not particularly Mormon, besides some major symbols and references.

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