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Gay Mormon characters step out of the shadows

Published May 26, 2013 9:34 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Twenty years ago, a gay Mormon character stepped onstage for the first time. His name was Joe Pitt, and he was in Tony Kushner's "Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches."

Pitt lived in New York with a good reputation and a bad marriage to a woman addicted to Valium. As colleagues dealt with the devastation and uncertainty of AIDS — it was the 1980s — he grappled with openly acknowledging his sexuality. He was Mormon. And gay. And the two didn't mix.

Before Pitt, there was a gay LDS character in a novel: Brigham Anderson, in Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent," published in 1959. But words like "gay" and "homosexual" weren't used; it was all innuendo.

Now, the scene has changed: Gay Mormon characters and themes have a growing role in theater and literature.

Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen said "Angels in America" was a turning point: "For a lot of LDS playwrights, part of the reaction to that play was, 'Why aren't we doing this?' "

But the biggest catalyst came in 2008, when the Utah-based Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints threw its weight behind Proposition 8, the ballot measure that ended gay marriages in California. Prop 8 is now before the Supreme Court, with a decision expected in coming weeks.

"I really believe that Prop 8 really inspired a lot of people to say, 'I'm not taking this anymore, I'm going to write my story,' " said Gerald Argetsinger, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Argetsinger, who is gay and Mormon himself, has spent the past few years working with friends to compile works that contain gay LDS themes and characters. Their anthology, Latter-Gay Saints: An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction, is due out this July from Lethe Press.

Looking back to 1959, they found more than 200 plays, short stories and novels — half are from the past five years.

In the past 20 years, 25 plays with gay Mormon characters or themes have been professionally produced or performed as major shows on college campuses, with more than 15 in the past five years.

The growth of gay Mormon theater comes against a culture shift in how the LDS Church relates to gays and lesbians. The church-run website mormonsandgays.org pairs the church's official stance – "[same-sex] attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is" – with stories of gay Mormons and their families and friends.

Another independent group, Mormons Building Bridges, is "dedicated to conveying love and acceptance to LGBT individuals."

Shell-shocked by the backlash set off by the church's support of Prop 8, the church has largely sat out recent statewide fights over gay marriage, and recently announced its support for the compromise proposal of the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay youths but exclude gay leaders.

Fiction has provided a way to talk about the lingering tensions on both sides.

After "Angels in America," there was Mark O'Donnell's "Strangers on Earth," Paul Rudnick's "The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told" and Neil Labute's "A Gaggle of Saints."

In 2001, Moises Kaufman's "The Laramie Project" told the story of the beating death of gay rights icon Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. One of the men who beat him was Mormon, and the show put a spotlight on the church's uneasy relationship with homosexuality.

More recent works involve two subsets of characters in the gay-and-Mormon narrative: women and missionaries. Argetsinger has noticed a difference between gays and lesbians in the way they write about the church.

"Lesbians are able to put the church behind them better than Mormon men are," Argetsinger said. When they leave the church, they don't look back in writing. They just leave.

Only four of the 25 gay and Mormon plays in the past 20 years have been written by women: Julie Jensen's "Wait" in 2005, Carol Lynn Pearson's "Facing East" in 2006, Laekin Rogers' "Hands of Sodom" in 2008 and Melissa Leilani Larson's "Little Happy Secrets" in 2009.

Gay missionaries make frequent appearances. In 2009, Steven Fales' "Missionary Position" told the story of a "squeaky-clean Mormon boy on his mission, trying to hide his homosexuality." That same year, Devan Mark Hite told the story of another gay Mormon missionary with "Since 'Psychopathia Sexualis.' "

In 2011, "The Book of Mormon" musical stormed Broadway — and so did its gay missionary character. The show has been wildly successful, which Argetsinger credits to the show's satirical approach.

A newer show, Matthew Greene's "Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea," tells the story of a missionary and his gay best friend. It premiered this January at Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake City — a venue dedicated to highlighting the works of Utah playwrights.

Although some of its recent shows have dealt with homosexuality and Mormonism, Plan-B's producing director Jerry Rapier said that's not necessarily the focus. He thinks in terms of "a character who happens to be gay and Mormon, instead of a gay Mormon character."

In February, Plan-B brought the first transgender Mormon character to the stage in Matthew Ivan Bennett's "ERIC(A)." The show is about a man grappling with a sex change operation after years spent living as an LDS housewife.

An insider perspective makes the shows work, said Rapier, who is gay. "They ring true," he said, "because they are written by active, faithful Mormons."

Many of the stories are based in reality — take Samuelsen's "Duets." It's part of three one-act plays slated to open next season, and it's about a woman who tells her best friend that her husband is gay.

"It's a fictional play, but I could plug in the names and faces of lots of kids I've known," said Samuelsen, who taught at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University for 20 years and watched several college-age women marry men they knew were gay.

Self-publishing has also propelled the increase in works about gays and Mormonism. That's what worked for Seattle writer Johnny Townsend, who collaborated with Argetsinger on the upcoming anthology.

He's written at least 70 short stories and sold at least 1,200 books. Many of his characters are LDS or Jewish — he's a former Mormon, now a nonpracticing Jew. Some of them are gay.

Self-publishing allows for targeting a niche audience, but Townsend said that audience is "not nearly big enough."

Ironically, he said, sometimes the people most intimately connected with the stories aren't interested. People who are gay and Mormon — or were Mormon — "are over it; they don't want to read about Mormons anymore."

— Kellie Kotraba is the editor of Columbia Faith & Values.