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Gay Mormon characters step out of the shadows
First Published May 22 2013 01:22 pm • Last Updated May 22 2013 01:22 pm

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.

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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.

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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.

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