What the church really offers to gay male Mormons: Jonathan Langford’s “No Going Back”
“In truth, I believe this book will save someones life,” says one of the blurbs in Jonathan Langford’s novel No Going Back. I agree, it’s quite likely. Through the experiences of Paul (a gay Mormon teen) — and of the LDS bishop who takes a special interest in his young charge — Langford paints a rich and honest portrait of exactly what Mormonism offers its gay male members. It may well serve as a lifeline of honesty for those youth who are drowning in the sea of deadly lies, such as those re-iterated by Elder Hafen and disseminated through the LDS newsroom last week: You’re diseased and your feelings are an unspeakably shameful perversion, but you’ll be cured if you’re righteous enough.
In this book, homosexuality is an integral (and involuntary) part of certain people’s character. Langford makes a case for the radical idea that gay people shouldn’t be blamed or ashamed for being gay.
Langford clearly sees the LDS church as being good and right and spiritually fulfilling, yet he doesn’t shy away from portraying the cruelty that is inspired by viewing “same-sex attraction” as a disease or perversion. For example, Paul has his eagle rank refused because of his orientation and is harassed so severly (by fellow Mormons) that he and his mother eventually decide that the only solution is for him to go back into the closet (strangely enough, given the title). Langford also accurately and even-handedly portrays the other side as Paul’s gay friends refuse to be supportive of Paul’s Mormon beliefs (including his political support for an anti-gay-marriage ballot initiative), which Paul sees as hypocritical intolerance on their part.
Being biased (as a non-believer), I feel like Langford was almost too honest for Mormon comfort about the price vs. the rewards of staying in Mormonism. He describes spiritual experiences that are deeply meaningful to Paul, but they hardly seem to compensate for the gratuitous cruelty of a church tells him that he can’t spend his life with someone he’s in love with. And not because he’s been called to a higher, more respected calling than marriage — as is the case for Catholicism’s celibate priests and nuns — but because he’s taught that his “in-love” feeling is inferior to that of others.
Langford takes the young gay male reader under his wing and (in an dialog between Bishop Rick and his FiL) explains exactly what patriarchy offers:
Rose dismissed herself for the night, giving Richard a hug and saying, Ill just leave you two to talk about whatever it is men talk about till all hours of the night. Richard watched as she left the room.
Shes a wonderful woman, his father-in-law commented.
That she is.
A better person than I am. I tell you, Richard, the older I get the more convinced I am that if we men make it to the celestial kingdom, itll be by hanging onto our wives coattails.
If they dont just flick us back where we came from, Richard responded ruefully.
Charles looked at him a moment. We didnt talk much at Christmas. How have things been, what with work and a young family and your calling and all?
Richard squirmed a bit mentally. Talking to his father-in-law was a bit like getting a personal priesthood interview from the stake president. A kindly, gentle personal priesthood interview, but still it always made Richard think about areas where he wasnt doing as well as he should.
[… Then the men get down to a serious discussion of bishoply business — especially Paul’s situation — after which the conversation turns to Bishop Rick’s wife, Sandy …]
What you have to understand, Charles said slowly, was that things werent terribly good between Sandy and the rest of the family right then. Did you know we offered to let her stay at home without paying any rent while she was attending college? Richard shook his head. She wouldnt have any of it. Wanted to be independent. We hardly even saw her after she started college, except when she came home to do her laundry.
Sandy wasnt too happy with the church growing up. She had a testimony, I think, but a lot of times it only seemed to make her angry. She resented the church, she resented the rules, she resented the time the church took away from us as a family… Charles frowned. When Sandy was seventeen and just starting her senior year, she informed us that she was going to have a career and not marry anyone until she was in her thirties at least. We didnt take it completely seriously. She was always making dramatic pronouncements she didnt necessarily mean. But still… At one point, she actually said shed rather die than live the kind of empty, wasted life her mother had led. When she left home, I admit I wasnt entirely sorry to see her go.
[… FiL gives a few more touching insights about Bishop Rick’s wife, and Bishop Rick immediately contemplates how to apply those insights to the plight of his little gay friend …]
They were both quiet for a moment. Richard wondered what Charles was thinking. At last he said, Richard, the thing you have to remember as a bishop — the thing I didnt remember nearly often enough — is to focus on the big issues, the things that only you as a bishop can do. The things that make a real difference in the lives of your ward members. Let the details take care of themselves.
The older man stood and stretched. Time for me to pack these old bones into my bed. It was good talking with you, son.
As Richard returned his father-in-laws firm embrace, he thought what a blessing it was that he had someone like this in his life, someone who — unlike his own father — could be an example of the kind of man Richard wanted to be. Honestly, if he and Sandy ever divorced, Richard thought hed miss his relationship with Charles almost as much as hed miss her.
Wow — sounds pretty tempting, don’t you think?
Sadly for you, young gay male Mormon reader, your rightful role as patriarch — with all the respect and responsibility of that office — comes at a price, as Langford has his gay teen character explain:
Just this past week when hed been shaking hands with the bishop, he felt a kind of warmth bubbling up inside him when he realized hed been keeping all his promises and didnt have anything to be ashamed or disappointed about that week. He imagined feeling that way all the time. It was a feeling he wanted to keep.
And then there was the whole getting-married-to-a-girl part.
He could imagine being married. He could imagine having a wife and a family. But not falling in love with a girl. A woman.
It wasnt about sex, Paul realized. He could have sex with a girl. It would be a physical release, without any real emotional connection, kind of like masturbation. But he could do it. That minute of half-response when he was hugging Sarah in the GSA meeting was enough to make him pretty sure about that.
But would I really feel happy living that way?
Deep inside himself, there was a part of Paul that really wanted to be with another guy. Not just to have sex but to feel all romantic and, well, sappy with. Someone to snuggle up next to. Someone to hug and be hugged back by. Someone to have fun with and to understand him and make him feel better when he was sad. Someone to be with him all the time and share his life with.
Paul could imagine himself falling in love with a guy really, really easily. But that wasnt what the gospel said would bring him joy.
Paul might also have asked himself: “Would a woman really feel happy living in such a marriage with me? Or would it perhaps be selfish of me to try to convince another person to give up her own chance at having ‘someone to share her life with’ in order to serve as my masturbation receptacle?” But he didn’t.
Anyway, as you can see from the above, Langford does an impressive job of explaining that gay love isn’t just about sex. And he gets it right, as confirmed by Mr. FOB.
Interestingly, however, Langford seems unable to grasp (or believe) that straight men might feel that same way about women. Langford gives the straight teen (Chad) real feelings when it comes to his concern for his gay friend (Paul). But when it comes time to demonstrate that Chad is straight, Langford phones in a joyless attempt at a Jack Weyland formula for him. But that’s nothing compared to what Langford gives to Bishop Rick. When his wife is (unsurprisingly) distraught at his distancing himself from her, Bishop Rick eventually (after the man-to-man discussion with FiL, above) has an epiphany that he needs to move his wife’s emotional needs to a higher-priority slot on his “to-do” list. Meanwhile, he doesn’t need any reminding when it comes to his little gay friend Paul’s emotional needs — indeed Bishop Rick isn’t shown to genuinely care about anything else.
If my own impression of marriage were as bleak and depressing as Langford’s, I sure as hell wouldn’t be defending the institution, much less getting mixed up in a marriage myself. Fortunately, marriage can be a little different than that when the partners’ genders and orientations match up better. And one can hardly fault Langford for being unfamiliar with what matched-orientation marriages are like, even as he strives to “defend” the straight ones.
All-in-all, I would definitely recommend giving this book to any and all gay male Mormon teens. While they’re making critical decisions about where the LDS church should fit into their lives, they deserve an honest picture to base their choices on.
Thanks Aerin! Looking at the intended publicity angle is definitely relevant. Let me just address the one central point in this press release:
This statement is a bit of an oversimplification. (I know, I know, it’s an advertisement, but still…)
The thing is that it implies that there are two “sides” on this issue. I count at least four distinct positions:
1. The truth/goodness claims of the LDS are wrong on the whole, including with respect to homosexuality,
2. The LDS church is good and right overall, but is wrong about homosexuality,
3. The LDS church is good and right overall, and is right to tell gay men to limit their sexuality to abstinence or mixed-orientation marriage, but is wrong when stating (a la Hafen) that homosexuality is something that can be overcome and changed through faith and righteousness,
4. The LDS church is good and right in its goals to eliminate homosexuality, and is offering a message of charity and hope when leaders tell people that “same-gender attraction” is something that can be overcome through faith.
None of these “sides” get along with one another. Langford is a very strong partisan for “side” #3, which means he’s written a story that sides 1, 2, and 4 will all have issues with.
Personally, as I’ve said above, I agree with the press release that the story is in many ways shockingly honest. By that, I mean that it’s surprisingly forthright in airing Mormonism’s dirty laundry, when so much mainstream Mormon lit is all about putting on a smiley face and telling everyone how happy Mormonism makes people.
I wouldn’t say that I’m displeased about the novel per se. It’s a little like if someone wrote a story about planting land-mines in some foreign country and told the tale of what happened to the kids who stepped on them. In that case, the story is not the problem — indeed it may well be helpful in shedding light on the real-world problem that is being portrayed. Similarly, I think this book is a very interesting and useful study in the dynamics of homosexuality within faithful Mormon circles.
Hi, would you (chanson) be interested in reviewing my gay Mormon novel for this site? It has a significantly different perspective than Langford’s book (unfortunately not lesbian, though…where’s the LDS lesbian perspective?)…
Anyway, the actual number of Mormons who would read my novel is quite small, so you as a non-believing feminist who is interested in Mormonism would make a great reviewer, I think.
Sure, I’d be happy to. Please email me at chanson dot exmormon at gmail dot com.
According to the gay Mormon lit project, the first published LDS lesbian story was in the collection In Our Lovely Deseret (which I reviewed here).
The one LDS lesbian novella I know of that’s online is Young Women’s.
check out this blog entry from Chris Bigelow, defending Langford’s book and complaining that
guess that would be us, for pointing out how shitty his portrayal of women is.
It should be noted, of course, that Bigelow fits the true definition of a homophobe, since he is downright terrified of homosexuality; he writes
given that those are the attitudes of the publisher, I suppose we’re lucky that the book is not even more full of self-loathing and misogyny.
oops! forgot the link:
“aggressively psychoanalyzing him”?
LOL, yep, I rasseled him down and strapped him to the analyst’s couch so he’d have no choice but to spill his secret resentment of women (and marriage) all over those pages… 😉
Seriously, though, it’s completely backwards to suggest that I was trying to “discredit” him by pointing out that it’s obvious from the text that he’s gay.
In what bizarre alternate reality does it “discredit” an author to say that he clearly knows what he’s talking about? My point was merely that he exposed the gay-male-faithful-patriarch perspective even more completely and accurately than he had perhaps intended to.
In what bizarre alternate reality does it discredit an author to say that he clearly knows what hes talking about?
in the bizarre alternate reality where being gay is a big ol’ nasty, nasty taint. You know, the bizarre reality where it’s a step in the wrong direction to let people exercise their free agency–and still grant them fair treatment when they use that free agency to do something LDS doctrine doesn’t sanction. The bizarre reality where “Satan’s plan” of forcing everyone to live a particular way is condemned as REALLY IMMORAL, despite the fact that people like Chris Bigelow would, if they could, force everyone to live a particular way, at least when it comes to being gay, which is so awful that free agency doesn’t really apply to it.
THAT bizarre alternate reality–aka, the bizarre reality of the TBM.
Exactly, and it just goes to show that we’re operating on totally different wavelengths. It didn’t even occur to me that they’d see it as some sort of slur or insult to assume that the author of a gay Mormon bildungsroman is, in fact, a gay Mormon.
It made me wonder — do they also think it was some sort of inappropriate stretch that I assumed Langford was Mormon?
The thing that’s such a sad irony is that it’s a book about how faithful keeping-the-law-of-chastity-type Mormons shouldn’t be hated and ostracized for being gay. Sadly, he doesn’t seem to believe his own message.
OTOH, Chris’s “aggressively psychoanalyzing him” claim may refer to the fact that I pointed out that the book is misogynist and promotes a misogynistic worldview. But that point doesn’t require any psychoanalysis — that’s in the text itself.
Now that I think about it:
Maybe he’s not talking about me. After all, there’s no way he can claim that my remarks were “unexpected”. Let me quote for you the email I sent them way back when I read the novel as a manuscript, when Christopher Bigelow was soliciting opinions on whether or not to publish it:
Church’s are always talking about any situation as “God’s Will.” However, If you’re gay, then God had nothing to do with it. So, you can live a lie, believing that by being with a woman makes you straight, go for it. But if you want to live your life the way you know it to be and the way God created you, it is foolish to listen to “elders” who think that you need to change, or at least pretend to for the benefit of your Mormon “family.” This is the reason that I have not been to church in years. I hated the hypocrisy, self-righteousness and judgmentalism that I saw and experienced there. God still loves you just as much as any of his children. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” I don’t see anything there that says “unless you are gay.” If you want to live a miserable life then follow the commands and judgments of hypocrites and the “holier than thou” crowd. If you want to be happy, live your life well, be who you are, and love the Lord. It’s as simple as that.
That’s powerful, Larry. Thank you.
Hey SortMeOut!!!The analogy was patuicrlarly obvious in this novel, considering the treatment the main character gets from the church. But it may well be relevant to other religions as well, including the Calvinists, as you mention.
Note: I have just received a series of comments (such as the above) that seem maybe Mormonism-related, yet not quite relevant to the post they’re posted under. Are they spam? Thoughts?