Zelophehad’s Daughters

Mormon Gays in Mormon Plays, Part III

Posted by Katya

2009

Of the nine plays I (originally) found that met my criteria, I think it’s no accident that almost half of them have premiered since 2008. Whatever the tensions were between the LDS Church and the gay and lesbian community before that year, the heated battle over California’s Proposition 8 has increased them exponentially. Whether or not any of these plays was written specifically because of or in response to those events, the environment of anger and resentment must have been on the minds of anyone with ties to either community, let alone to both.

Little Happy Secrets, by Melissa Leilani Larson

Melissa Leilani Larson’s plays have covered subjects ranging from the court of King Louis XIV to a Filipina mail-order bride with supernatural powers. She doesn’t typically write plays about Mormon characters, but at least two of her plays have Mormon protagonists: the short play A Burning in the Bosom and Little Happy Secrets.

When I first became familiar with Little Happy Secrets, I was struck by how different it was from other plays about homosexual Mormons I’d come across. It was the only play that was about a lesbian Mormon instead of a gay Mormon, the only play whose main character was still expressly committed to her faith at the end of the story, and, along with Facing East, one of only two plays by a female playwright. (I’ve since had the chance to read the script for Be Normal, which is similar to Little Happy Secrets in a number of ways.)

Little Happy Secrets is the story of Claire, a young faithful Mormon woman—a returned missionary, no less—coming to terms with the fact that she is not attracted to men. In fact, she’s in love with Brennan, her best friend and roommate. In contrast with the men of Ranging, who are aching for some sort of emotional connection with other men, the closeted Claire has the opposite problem, since Brennan tends to be physically affectionate towards her roommate, not knowing that Claire is attracted to her. (Molly, the main character in Be Normal, has a similar problem with one of her roommates. As an aside, I find this a very interesting commentary on platonic relationships in male and female cultures. While I’m very aware of many social advantages that men have, reading Ranging reminded me of the female social advantages that I tend to take for granted.)

As the play progresses, Brennan meets a guy, starts dating him, and, in rather stereotypical Mormon fashion, the dating turns into “serious” dating and then to talk of marriage. The fact that this relationship is so stereotypical is part of the point. Brennan isn’t sure if this is what she really wants, or if it’s just a cultural expectation. Claire, outside the relationship, sees someone taking away the woman she loves, and realizes that there is no “stereotypical Mormon” path for her.

Little Happy Secrets is a very intimate story. It’s a one-act play with only four characters, and the main character, Claire, switches off between acting out the scenes of her life and turning to the audience to comment on them. The device makes the play even more personal; it’s as if we’re reliving these events by reading Claire’s diary. I think this is what Gideon Burton meant when he said “This is not the Mormon lesbian play” (emphasis added). The play is not epic or grandiose or spectacular. It is the story of one woman’s life and decisions, no less, no more.

(As a reminder, this play can be downloaded as a free audio podcast from iTunes and the playwright is looking to raise money for a production in Salt Lake City next year.)

The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon, by Charles Lynn Frost and Troy Williams

Dottie Dixon started out in 2006 as a guest on a radio show called “Now Queer This.” Troy Williams, the show’s host, had asked his friend Charles Lynn Frost to draw on his theater background and create a humorous character for the show. Frost ended up creating a character based on his mother: A happily married, faithful Mormon, Spanish Fork native with a gay son.

Williams eventually convinced Frost that they should expand Dottie’s short radio spots to a full-length play, which premiered in May 2009. Dottie is committed to her faith but she also loves her son and she believes that it is her mission to bring together the Mormon and LGBT communities. If Facing East is about uniting communities through grief and loss, The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon is about uniting communities through humor and compassion (perhaps in the hope of averting such grief and loss).

In addition to being an advocate for gay rights, Sister Dottie is an advocate for women’s rights within the LDS Church. Steven Fales also expresses solidarity with Mormon women as he waits for his Church court to begin: “I always felt I needed to win some leader’s approval. I wanted desperately to be like them, for them to like me—to be noticed. I was invisible. No matter what I did or how well I did it, I felt I was never appreciated or accepted for who I was. I felt I knew what it must be like to be a woman in this Church.”

It seems like an unlikely pairing—gay ex-Mormons fighting for straight Mormon women to have a greater voice within the LDS Church—but perhaps not. After all, gay ex-Mormons find themselves positioned in opposition to the patriarchal Church hierarchy and to traditional masculine ideals, and Mormon women find themselves defined in opposition to those things, as well.

16 Responses to “Mormon Gays in Mormon Plays, Part III”

  1. 1.

    Thanks again for these reviews, Katya. Tangentially, I also think it’s interesting that Little Happy Secrets is the only play among those you found addressing the experience of a lesbian rather than a gay man in Mormonism. Admittedly, I don’t read much, but it seems like I’ve read much more from gay men than from lesbians about trying to work out sexual orientation and religion. I could be way off base here, but could it be that lesbians are more prone to just leave the Church behind, given that they’re doubly powerless, being both female and homosexual, while gay men are at least male?

  2. 2.

    Thanks for the overview and analysis! I’ll have to download Little Happy Secrets and listen to it–it sounds interesting.

  3. 3.

    ditto to downloading and ditto to ziff’s question, double powerlessness?

  4. 4.

    I actually think lesbians are more likely to stay in the Church than gay men given that female sexuality is a lot more fluid than men’s. I like Dr. Lisa Diamond’s work on the topic:

    http://www.amazon.com/Sexual-Fluidity-Understanding-Womens-Desire/dp/0674026241

    But additionally, I am also totally biased in my opinion since I fall into the category of someone who has been able to squelch my inner lesbian and actually have a successful marriage in the Church (long story). I tend to think there are a lot of woman who have been able adapt to the Church standards which of course is the opposite of the gay Mormon male paradigm.

    I really enjoyed listening to Happy Little Secrets — I thought Larson told a great story (especially given that she herself isn’t a lesbian) and was able to weave so much into a short play but I was still left wishing there was more depth and emotional intimacy portrayed in the relationship between Brennan and Claire to begin to capture much more fully what I think is a key feature of what attracts a lesbian to another woman. For this reason, I hope there will be at least one more Mormon lesbian play.

    A frequent Lurker

  5. 5.

    Thanks, Frequent Lurker! I (obviously) had no idea, so it’s great to hear about your actual experience.

  6. 6.

    I was still left wishing there was more depth and emotional intimacy portrayed in the relationship between Brennan and Claire to begin to capture much more fully what I think is a key feature of what attracts a lesbian to another woman.

    Interesting point, FL. In Little Happy Secrets, the depth of the relationship between Brennan and Claire is more “told” than “shown.” (I’d say that Be Normal is similar in that regard.) Ranging does a really good job of showing the emotional depth of the men’s relationships, but, then it was written by a gay man, and LHS was written by a straight woman.

    I also like your point about the fluidity of women’s sexuality. I seem to remember reading once (how’s that for a vague citation?) that there are fewer lesbians than gay men in American society, period. That fits in with the idea of fluid sexuality if there are more women who self-identify as being in some sort of middle area between straight and gay. (And if there are fewer Mormon lesbians to begin with, then there are fewer lesbians to leave the Church or talk about leaving the Church, so we’ll hear proportionately less from them.)

  7. 7.

    In Dr. Diamond’s 10 year study on 100 women with nonexclusive heterosexual identity, one of her findings that I found really interesting was that her female participants often tended to label and describe their sexuality/sexual orientation based upon the gender of the person in their most current relationship.

    Many who originally self identified as bisexual, later self identified as a lesbian while in a relationship with a women. And many who originally self identified as lesbians, later described themselves as bisexuals after having a relationship with a man. Many were uncomfortable giving any sort of label to describe their sexuality because of the common assumptions attached to a particular label that they didn’t feel represented their experiences and I can certainly relate to that.

    I think this too may help explain a little more why we don’t hear more stories from “lesbians” as well — we are so used to thinking about homosexuality in fixed terms, as seems to so often be the case with gay men, that how women experience homosexuality doesn’t fit that narrative and perhaps might be perceived as less valid in comparison. I certainly don’t think it is less valid but I think needs to be examined and appreciated on its own terms.

    By the way, thanks for all your posts Katya

  8. 8.

    we are so used to thinking about homosexuality in fixed terms, as seems to so often be the case with gay men, that how women experience homosexuality doesn’t fit that narrative and perhaps might be perceived as less valid in comparison.

    I had a good friend in grad school who self-identified as bisexual (based on past relationships), but was in a heterosexual marriage, and she talked about how some members of the gay and lesbian community didn’t want to accept people like her as being part of their community. I think their argument was that she got to “pass” for straight and have her relationship formalized by marriage, while they were still fighting for that recognition in many parts of society.

    It kind of reminds me of the tensions in a non-white community when some members of that community can “pass” for white, even if they don’t self-identify as such. Again, it seems to come down to the “validity” of the experience.

    Going back to the LGBTQI experience (Ben will be so pleased I remembered all six letters), members of that community have had to carve out a space for their respective sexual identities in a culture that didn’t originally have room for them, so it seems ironic that they would then turn around and tell someone else that they have to choose between being fully in the group or fully out of the group, but I do understand the human tendency to divide the world into “with us” or “against us.”

    By the way, thanks for all your posts Katya

    You are most certainly welcome!

  9. 9.

    I question the universality of Diamonds work. She’s dealing with a small subset of a small subset. It maybe accurate for all women or it may not be. I admit I have a certain amount of belief in the truthfulness of the caricature of women studies students, which they themselves may not agree with.

    Most lesbians who I have met that come from a Mormon background( in fact, I don’t know any active lds lesbians), do not give much thought to Mormonism. If you don’t hear from them, maybe they are having better conversations.

    While I have met women with a certain amount of fluidity, the viscosity varied. I’m as sexually fluid as formed granite

  10. 10.

    Very interesting posts, Katya! Although I had read, seen, or at least heard of most of them, yet you surprised me with a number of them. That’s hard to do when it comes to me and Mormon plays. Good work! :]

  11. 11.

    Although I had read, seen, or at least heard of most of them, yet you surprised me with a number of them.

    Excellent! :)

  12. 12.

    I am SOOOOO late to this party.

    I haven’t seen Little Happy Secrets, but I have read it several times, and my take is sooooo different than anyone else’s:

    I don’t see Claire as being a lesbian at all. The most I could allow is that she perhaps has a fairly fluid sexuality (as noted above, a theory with which I agree).

    I see her as a socially awkward, very inexperienced (life in general) young woman who has had one meaningful non-familial, emotionally fulfilling relationship in her life and that happened to be with a girl.

    In fact, I see it as a crush that doesn’t, in fact, define anything about her sexuality because not only do men not turn her on, neither have any other women. That doesn’t scream “lesbian” to me.

    I can’t see Claire ever having a sexually intimate relationship with anyone, ever–unless she makes herself more emotionally available to people other than Brennan.

    I think that this is a story of an unrequited crush and has nothing to do with gender or sexuality.

    (Disclaimer: This is nothing I haven’t said to the playwright personally.)

  13. 13.

    A very interesting observation. Given that Larsen has said she wrote the play by imagining what it would be like to be a lesbian Mormon (or Mormon lesbian), perhaps she was only able to go as far as writing a character having a crush on a particular woman, but not being a lesbian in a larger sense.

    (I do think it’s unfortunate that we haven’t had any plays about gay Mormons written by a gay Mormon who is still active or practicing, because that’s a perspective that’s missing in this set. But perhaps the union of the sets “gay,” “active Mormon,” and “playwright” is too much to ask for.)

  14. 14.

    Given that Larsen has said she wrote the play by imagining what it would be like to be a lesbian Mormon (or Mormon lesbian), perhaps she was only able to go as far as writing a character having a crush on a particular woman, but not being a lesbian in a larger sense.

    I can buy that, especially as I struggled to write from the same place of imagination, only my faithful LDS gay character is also male. And much older. And knows what he likes.

    For Claire, though, her challenge would be to get over Brennan (especially after that last little bomb Brennan lobbed at her) (and Brennan was having her own this-is-what-I’m-expected-to-do-and-I’m-going-along-with-it moment too) before she could even begin to sort out who she is, and getting over Brennan seems like it would take a long time.

  15. 15.

    Katya,

    If you haven’t read (or seen) Eric Samuelson’s _Borderlands_, you should look for it. I believe it was published in _Sunstone_ sometime recently. There is one gay Mormon character, but the play is not primarily about homosexuality. Instead it’s about the broader idea of what it means to live in the borderlands of Mormonism and to come out as someone who does. I saw the Plan B production of it in Salt Lake this spring and thought it was incredibly well done, though I haven’t read the text so I don’t know how it would stand up as a text rather than a production.

    Just thought I’d mention it in case this is a topic of ongoing interest to you.

  16. 16.

    Thanks, Amelia. I actually emailed Eric early on to ask him some questions about this project and he was kind enough to send me a copy of the play. (Unfortunately, I’ve never finished this series. Perhaps some day I will.)

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