Zelophehad’s Daughters

Mormon Gays in Mormon Plays, Part II

Posted by Katya

1999

Banging the Bishop: Latter Day Prophecy, by Dustin B. Goltz

Goltz was raised as a Reformed Jew, but became Mormon as a young man when missionaries came to his door. As a Mormon, he felt that he could be a good person who had a mission in life and divine potential. Also, he was told that his homosexuality was a result of excessive masturbation, and he would be welcomed into heaven if he’d stop. He couldn’t. And he didn’t stop being attracted to men, so he eventually decided he didn’t belong in the Mormon heaven, and he left.

In Banging the Bishop, Goltz retells his own story as a play full of tension between extremes. He pits the purity of Mormon heaven against his post-Mormon period of debauchery, and the sexual repressiveness of the culture he couldn’t live up to against the peace he finally found in fully exploring his sexual desire by visiting a gay bathhouse. Even the format is dichotomous, split between a live performer and prerecorded video and audio segments.

2001

Confessions of a Mormon Boy, by Steven Fales

Confessions of a Mormon Boy is an autobiographical one-man play written and performed by Steven Fales. The play takes place in a (quasi-)Mormon afterlife where Fales, who has been sent to the Telestial Kingdom, wants to visit his children in the Celestial Kingdom, but he must first get past St. Peter, who’s acting as a heavenly bouncer. Through the course of the play, he tells St. Peter about his life, starting with a pre-existence where he was tight with Heavenly Mother (described as a fabulous diva), and continuing through his childhood, college years, temple marriage (to Emily Pearson, the daughter of Carol Lynn Pearson), the end of that marriage because of his homosexual affairs, his excommunication, and what he terms his “gay adolescence.”

Based on the title alone, it would be easy to guess that Confessions of a Mormon Boy has a strong autobiographical element, which is not unique in this group of plays. (Is the subject of gay Mormons easier to address when it comes from someone who’s been there? Is it cathartic to write about your life? Or is it more simply a case of “write what you know”?) At any rate, at least four of the plays have autobiographical elements (Banging the Bishop, Confessions of a Mormon Boy, 14, and The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon—although the latter might better be considered loosely biographical) and three of them are performed by the playwright.

2006

Facing East, by Carol Lynn Pearson

Carol Lynn Pearson has a history with Mormon homosexuality in both the personal and public spheres. In the personal realm, her marriage to Gerald Pearson ended because of his homosexuality (and her daughter’s marriage would end for similar reasons). In the public realm, she wrote a bestselling memoir about her marriage, divorce, and subsequent experiences caring for her husband after he came home to die of AIDS. She has also become an active advocate for the acceptance of gay and lesbian Mormons within the Mormon community.

Facing East takes place just after the funeral of Andrew, a gay Mormon who committed suicide. Andrew’s parents, Alex and Ruth, have stayed at his grave, where Alex begins to express doubts about the way his orthodox Mormon worldview led him to treat his son. They are later joined by Marcus, Andrew’s partner. There are flashbacks about Andrew, but he isn’t a character in the play. Instead, each actor takes a turn playing him in the other character’s memories. It’s a fitting device, given that the conflict of the play has to do with how we define who Andrew is: Is he a Mormon who couldn’t overcome his temptations? Is he a gay man whose religious culture was blind to the good in him?

Suicide is a common topic in this group of plays. It is addressed most prominently in Facing East, since the play’s characters are still reeling in shock from the death of their son and partner, but suicidal thoughts or actions come up in over half of the plays I found. Three of the characters in Ranging have attempted or considered suicide, the main character in Little Happy Secrets briefly considers it, and the main character in Banging the Bishop tries to kill himself at least three times. In addition to this, 14 is based on the real-life events surrounding fourteen gay men who participated in electroshock “reparative therapy” at BYU to try to change their homosexual behavior. Two of the participants later committed suicide.

2007

14, by John Cameron

John Cameron is a faculty member in the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Iowa. When he was a BYU student in the 1970s, he was involved in experimental electroshock therapy designed to treat or cure his homosexuality. In his late 20s (and still gay), Cameron left the Mormon Church behind and didn’t talk much about his experiences with the therapy until he found the website for Affirmation and discovered an entire community of gay Mormons. Through Affirmation, Cameron was contacted by a journalist who wanted to interview him about the experiments. Reliving his experiences at BYU sent him into a long depression (and then the most difficult parts to relive were cut from the published interview), but when Cameron came out of the depression, he started writing the play.

The premise of the play is highly autobiographical: A college professor named Ron Sorenson is approached by a journalist who wants information about his participation in the BYU experiments. In talking to the journalist, Sorenson must revisit painful events in his past which start to affect his present life, as well. Cameron directed the premiere of the play and it was very well received in its first run at the University of Iowa, with every performance selling out.

Ranging, by Devan Hite

In contrast with Banging the Bishop, which is about the expression of physical desires, Ranging focuses on the emotional lives of men, especially within American culture. Ethan and Robert, two characters in the play, both have a need to have closer relationships with men than is culturally acceptable in American society. Ethan describes it as saying that the average man is happy to function at a level of 6.5 in terms of emotional connection, while he’s quietly struggling as a nine. Ethan and Robert’s “nine-ness” is not unconnected with their sexuality, but it goes beyond sexual relationships. Ethan recalls the day he went to give his dad a hug and was told he was now too old for such things (“I wasn’t aware that this was part of ‘growing up.’”) As an officer in the marines, Robert is naturally isolated from the enlisted men he commands. When he’s stationed in Iraq, he finds himself envying the way that men in Iraqi society are permitted to be more affectionate with each other, even as part of his military mission is to influence Iraqi culture to be more American.

Based on the above paragraph, you wouldn’t know that this play has anything to do with Mormons. In reality, the play has a lot of Mormon references, a few in passing, but many more direct. For example, Ethan talks to his bishop about his feelings for another man and why they’ve nearly driven him to commit suicide. The character description for the bishop says that “everything about him is conservative,” and he’s definitely towing the LDS party line throughout the story, but I found him to be more sympathetically drawn than I expected, especially during a monologue when he freely admits that he has no idea what to tell gay and lesbian Mormons when they come to him for advice.

Ranging isn’t the only play with a character who meets with their bishop or stake president. (This isn’t unexpected for a Mormon character who’s going through a religious crisis, but it’s the kind of situation that a non-Mormon author might have trouble handling believably.) Steven Fales and Dustin Goltz’ priesthood leaders are unsuccessful in “curing” their homosexuality (and both hint at having leaders who may be in the closet, themselves). Molly (the main character in Be Normal) has a better experience meeting with her bishop, who helps her negotiate coming out to her family.

10 Responses to “Mormon Gays in Mormon Plays, Part II”

  1. 1.

    I just read Ranging and I found it to be a very interesting play. I am glad that it does not simply look to Gay/Straight binaries but is willing to analyze complexity.

    Where did you find a copy of 14 and Banging the Bishop? I’d love to read or listen to those plays and have not been able to find them.

  2. 2.

    14 I haven’t read. (The information I have about it is from interviews and articles, which I’ll include in the bibliography.) If I hadn’t been in a hurry to publish this series before the fundraising deadline, I would have contacted Cameron to ask for a copy of the play.

    Banging the Bishop was published in Text and Performance Quarterly in 2007 (vol. 27, no. 3). If you’re still affiliated with a university, you may have online or print access to the journal through the library.

  3. 3.

    .

    Very interesting. Keep em coming.

  4. 4.

    Confessions of a Mormon Boy sounds particularly interesting to me. Thanks for the reviews, Katya!

  5. 5.

    I knew Steven Fales in the mission field. He was my zone leader. Nice guy.

  6. 6.

    Great overview, Katya!

    Now I really want to go to a play.

  7. 7.

    Very cool, Katya. I think it’s notable, in light of several points made in Part I’s comment thread, that of the playwrights in this post, only one (Pearson) is currently active in the Church (unless Hite is also). Also notably, Pearson herself is straight. I’m curious to see in Part III (there is a Part III, right?) whether you’ve found any plays written by active Mormons who are gay. I’m a firm believer that if there’s a place within the Church for lesbians and gay men, then there needs to be a place for them within faithful Mormon arts and literature, providing models of what that experience looks like. There certainly are active lesbian and gay Mormons–they’re all over the blogosphere, but apart from Ty Mansfield, John Gustav-Wrathall, and Theric’s high councilor, I know of few who leave the safety of blogging anonymity. This certainly has something to do with Mormon social taboos, but I’d say the LGBTIQ community and our allies are equally to blame. I can’t sincerely complain that the lack of literary and artistic portrayal of faithful lesbian and gay Mormons contributes to lesbian and gay Mormons feeling like there’s no place for them in the Church, because I personally believe they’re better off outside the Church, but I see this as a tragedy from the faithful LDS perspective.

  8. 8.

    Interesting observations, Ben. Part III will include 3 plays by active Mormons (all straight, as far as I know) and one play by a gay former Mormon, so your observations hold true there, as well. I can think of three possible explanations for this split:

    (1) As you mentioned, the LDS community isn’t yet ready to welcome active Mormons who are out of the closet.

    (2) The number of gay and lesbian Mormons who leave the LDS Church outnumbers the ones who stay, and there isn’t yet a critical mass of ones who’ve stayed to produce a playwright.

    (3) Of the five gay playwrights, four have written plays with autobiographical elements, three of which are basically structured around “this is how I left the LDS Church.” (And the fifth, non-autobiographical play tells a similar story about one of its characters.) Assuming that an active gay or lesbian Mormon playwright would look first to their own experiences, maybe the story of “how I left” has a more natural narrative structure than the story of “how I didn’t leave” does. (The two plays about active lesbian Mormons who stay LDS have much more unresolved endings, which I think is consistent with this idea.)

    Also, I’d like to apologize to all for being so slow to put up parts III and IV. My laptop broke on Thursday and I just got it back from the folks at IT.

  9. 9.

    I think this link to Fales recent implosion is relevant but, of course, feel free to delete if you don’t.

  10. 10.

    Wow. What a mess.

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