Writer sees growing acceptance of LGBT within Mormon faith
Jerry Argetsinger never felt a twinge of tension between being gay and being Mormon.
Nobody talked about homosexuality in his Oregon LDS congregation when he was growing up in the 1960s. Nobody asked him about his attractions. Nobody made cruel or even not-so-subtle comments about him. Nobody made him feel guilty.
It came as a bit of a shock, then, when Argetsinger was beginning his sophomore year at LDS Church-owned Brigham Young University in 1965 and heard university President Ernest L. Wilkinson say that the school didn't want any gays on campus. If any student has those "tendencies" and "fails to repent," the president said, he could come forward and get his tuition refunded.
Fortunately, the young theater major left a month later for his two-year LDS mission in Denmark, which, Argetsinger says, was "a great experience."
When he told a visiting apostle, Howard W. Hunter (who became LDS Church president in 1994 until his death in 1995), that he was gay, Hunter assured the young missionary that he was doing well and urged him to "just keep your feelings to yourself."
That set the pattern of church response for the next five decades, Argetsinger says: private acceptance from various Mormon leaders but no public acknowledgment.
That may be changing.
This week, Argetsinger unveiled Latter-Gay Saints:An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction, which he edited with Jeff Laver of Salt Lake City and Johnny Townsend of Seattle and which he will be discussing at the annual Sunstone Symposium on Saturday, Aug. 3.
The book features 25 short stories and four plays, each work exploring how it felt to be gay in families, or at church, on missions, with God.
"None of these stories purport to represent any 'official position' of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints," Argetsinger writes in the book's introduction. "But they do represent our lives, our hopes, our aspirations."
One of the Utah-based faith's missions is "to take the gospel to all peoples in their own language," Argetsinger says. "I really see this book as speaking to gay Mormons 'in their own language,' regardless of where they are on the spectrum of both church activity and in being gay."
The 67-year-old LDS writer and director, who lives in Rochester, N.Y., near Mormonism's birthplace, is thrilled by the sequence of events that led to the book's publishing.
It is, for example, the 20th anniversary of "Angels in America," Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play that showcased one of the first gay Mormon characters.
The anthology also comes at a time when the LDS Church seems more open to discussing the real-life experience of its gay members.
The same December 2012 day he began his final work on the book, the LDS Church announced the creation of a website, mormonsandgays.org, which has a softer tone about same-sex attraction.
"We are at the dawn of acceptance of gays in the church," Argestsinger says. "The church is saying, 'We want your stories,' and pieces are falling into place."
He believes his book will contribute to the new openness.
"I believe this [book] is part of my [religious] calling," he says. "Clearly, the Lord took this in his hands and made it happen."
It's been a long time coming.
A natural partnership • When Argetsinger returned to BYU after his LDS mission, he threw himself into the theater department with gusto. That's where he met his future wife, Gail, who had a way with fashion and fabrics.
He didn't tell her about his sexuality before they married, but both felt a strong and separate â spiritual confirmation that they should wed.
"When I found out, there was a question whether or not to stay with the marriage," Gail Argetsinger says. "I felt overpoweringly moved to stay. I have gained a great understanding of the tribal nature of the family. We are team leaders of a family. Ours is a partnership beyond the movie image of a marriage."
The couple made the decision together.
"Jerry is still my best friend," Gail says. "We have done so many church callings and produced so much art together."
From 1990 to 1997, he directed the faith's "Hill Cumorah Pageant," a giant, costumed spectacle, which re-enacts scenes from Mormon history and scripture on a hill where church founder Joseph Smith lived as a young man and claimed to have found an ancient record that became The Book of Mormon. Gail was the pageant's costume designer from 1978 to 1997.
The couple's two sons are fully accepting of their dad (even have fun teasing him about his sexuality), Gail says. "They have blessed our lives. They were sent to us. They needed us and we needed them."
At the beginning, there were tough times and a "steep learning curve," Jerry Argetsinger acknowledges, but "we've been married 43 years. We love each other and it worked."
Both are quick to say that marriage to a woman is not a pattern they recommend for other Mormon gays, nor is it one that the LDS Church now recommends as it once did.
Only 4 percent of mixed-orientation marriages survive, Argetsinger says. "I would never tell a gay man to marry a woman, unless the [Holy] Spirit confirmed it as it did for us and I don't mean a bishop."
Part of his self-confidence, he says, comes from living and working in upstate New York, where he teaches in the cultural and creative studies department of Rochester Institute of Technology's National Technical Institute for the Deaf.
At church, he serves on his LDS stake's "high council," a group of male leaders who help supervise several congregations.
Argetsinger has been open about his sexuality with Mormon leaders, he says, and they have been supportive of him, even sending gay members and their parents to him for counsel and advice. Latter-Gay Saints is dedicated to three LDS stake presidents and a bishop.
"We have had 16 teen boys in Rochester who were gay and whose fathers were church leaders a patriarch, a stake president, temple president, mission president and several bishops," Argetsinger says. "When you are dealing with it at home, it changes everything at church."
And for some, the best way to explore their feelings is through fiction.
The stories come pouring out • Argetsinger began researching Mormon gay literature about five years ago for an academic project that didn't pan out. But he couldn't stop.
Before he knew it, he had found some 200 stories and plays that fit the theme, many of which had been written or produced in the past decade.
The first gay Mormon character Argetsinger could find was Sen. Brigham Anderson in Allen Drury's Advise and Consent.
"The topic was so taboo in 1959 that even though the Mormon senator from Utah's homosexual affair was the pivotal event of the entire novel, neither the word 'homosexual' nor any of its counterparts appeared in the book," Argetsinger writes. "The critical event of the story was exclusively implied."
Drury needed a senator "who was squeaky clean, intelligent, popular and above all respected," he writes, and the Mormon figure seemed to provide that.
Other than being labeled "Mormon," Argetsinger writes, "everything about Brigham Anderson and his religion is decidedly Catholic."
Kushner, on the other hand, got a lot about Mormonism right in his depiction of closeted gay Mormon Joe Pitt.
Drury and Kushner won Pulitzers for their efforts, but neither was or had ever been a member of the LDS Church.
The first gay LDS writer, Argetsinger discovered, was Richard Fullmer, a young gay man from Vernal, who left Utah in the mid-1960s for the streets of San Francisco. He took up the pen name "Dirk Vanden."
"He created literary stories which included central Mormon characters," Argetsinger writes in the introduction, and then, without his knowledge, publishers inserted scenes of "hot gay sex" for more sales.
Today, Vanden "is hailed as one of the pioneers of gay fiction," the introduction says, and his short story "Gay Messiah" is included in this volume.
Some writers in the anthology have created narratives about gay Mormon youths; others look at missionary experiences; some are humorous, some sad and some deeply tragic.
In the end, Argetsinger says, the book helps move the question for homosexual Latter-day Saints from "Am I gay?" to "What kind of gay Mormon am I going to be?"
Each person, he says, must decide alone or with divine help.
Argetsinger certainly has.
'Latter-Gay Saints' at Sunstone
P Jerry Argetsinger will give a presentation at the Sunstone Symposium.
When • Saturday, Aug. 3, 2-3:30 p.m.
Where • Olpin Student Union Building, University of Utah