Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Account of a Gay Mormon's Complicated Journey

What happens when your religion does not reflect who you are? (REUTERS/Jim Urquhart)      
Alasdair Ekpenyong had never heard of a gay Mormon before. It seemed like a paradox, an oxymoron. "What is a gay Mormon?" he asked.

"It's someone who stays in the Mormon community," Rick replied, "even while dating someone of the same gender."

Rick was recounting his life for Alasdair and a group of visitors. He was not a gay Mormon anymore — he'd left the faith years ago, fed up with feeling unwelcome in his own religion. So now Rick was just a gay man with a towering stature and a scraggly beard. On this day he was also wearing a dress, a detail that made Alasdair squirm in his slacks. In Alasdair's mind, men simply did not wear dresses. But then, Twin Oaks Intentional Community was not supposed to resemble Alasdair's mind.

Alasdair was Mormon, and Twin Oaks was the sort of place that could make a Mormon blush. Twin Oaks was a Virginia commune with a reputation for liberal politics and libertine sexuality, and Rick's room was a stop on the visitor tour.

It was April 2012. Alasdair was twenty years old and found himself in the commune as a researcher, studying the strange ways of people like Rick. It was a bit of a role reversal — Mormons are used to finding themselves under the microscope, studied as if they were an odd lichen on the boulder of America. There's always a species stranger than your own.

Alasdair had just finished seven months of missionary work in Salt Lake City, helping with church genealogy projects. Young Mormon men usually become missionaries in their late teens, often traveling overseas to spread the faith and immerse themselves in scripture, or working domestically like Alasdair. A two-year Mormon mission requires such discipline that it can seem like a kind of spiritual infantry, with all the surveillance and rigidity you'd expect of a foot soldier of faith.

Missionaries remain constantly in pairs, adhering strictly to schedules, dress codes, and prohibitions on any form of entertainment other than scripture.

But Alasdair had always been intensely independent, including in his relationship to Mormonism. His mission chafed him. Even living in an urban center like Salt Lake City he felt disconnected from the world at large. So he'd left early, knowing full well that a missionary who gives up can be treated like a deep disappointment to his community.

On the day he was released, his old Mormon bishop had picked him up from the mission site. The bishop had lived through a mission of his own, and in the time since had become a church leader and historian of early Mormonism. Out of compassion, before Alasdair had even unpinned the black nametag from his pressed white shirt, the bishop hired him to work as a research assistant. That was how Alasdair had come to the Twin Oaks commune.

Alasdair Ekpenyong is a black Nigerian-American with the tall and narrow build of a distance runner. He wears metal-frame glasses and keeps his hair buzzed close to his head. Rick and Alasdair, therefore, did not look much alike. But they had two things in common. First, both of them had been baptized into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is the full name of the Mormon Church. Rick had been born Mormon, while Alasdair had converted as a teenager.

Second, both of them were gay. Alasdair just didn't say it that way, or, rather, didn't say it at all. In the gentler language of the Church of Latter-day Saints, he thought of himself as "same-gender attracted." But he kept this secret, knowing that a Mormon who acted on same-gender attraction could be excommunicated — thrown out of the faith.

This policy was actually quite progressive in the context of the history of the Mormon Church. It used to be that simply feeling same-gender attraction was sinful. In 2007, the church updated its doctrine to distinguish between feelings and actions. After that, same-gender attracted Mormons could be open about their feelings, as long as they chose straight marriage or celibacy. In 2008, however, when the Church of Latter-day Saints publicly supported California's Proposition 8 to ban gay marriage, it became clear just how complicated this stance was. In several cases, private organizations run by Mormons have also taken such goals abroad, by campaigning at the United Nations and in Africa against the LGBT rights and gay marriage.

There are a lot of gay Mormons, paradoxical or not. Many of them, like Rick, simply leave the faith. Alasdair intended to stay.

In July, he would be returning to Brigham Young University — BYU, the academic home of 30,000 young Mormons in Provo, Utah, forty miles south of Salt Lake. The research job with his former bishop would last him until then. His task as an assistant was to study the commune's utopian vision during its three-week visitor program.

Utopia was the link between this commune and Alasdair's church. Many communes had been conceived as perfected societies, built to enshrine basic human values. Twin Oaks had no particular religious or sexual orientation, but emphasized equality and nonviolence. Early Mormonism, meanwhile, had fashioned itself as a perfected version of Christianity. Salt Lake City, Utah, had been built as Mormonism's first utopian city of faith — Zion, as they called it. Alasdair's bishop hoped that modern-day communes like Twin Oaks might shed light on the nature of early Mormonism.

So Alasdair spent his first day at Twin Oaks on a tour with three other visitors. There were about a dozen buildings tucked between stands of trees, plus gardens and a barn, where the visitors would help out during their stay. Rick lived on the second floor of a dormitory-style building. As he showed the visitors inside, he'd explained his Mormon upbringing and his experiences in the faith. That was when Alasdair asked about gay Mormons.

Rick had lived in Utah well into his twenties, trying to date men without leaving the church. He had come to feel that his religion, which could be so warm and welcoming, officially considered him a sinner. It had taken him years to let go, but he finally did.

Inside Rick's room there was a bunk bed, a couch, and a second mattress on the floor. But it was the wall that caught Alasdair's attention. It was covered with photographs. Rick had taken them in Salt Lake City, the very capital of Mormon utopia, the same city in which Alasdair had served his mission. The images were of nude men, artfully composed, each one reclining outdoors or cradling a vase. To Alasdair, they were a scandal, a shock.

Beneath his clothes, Alasdair was wearing his white temple garments, a special kind of Mormon underclothes that look like long underwear and an undershirt. A Mormon wearing the garments implicitly promises to act with discipline and self-restraint. Still, no one would stop him if his eyes traced the naked outline of a man, the curve of a long leg and the muscles of a bare torso.
He averted his eyes, and went on with the tour.

Daniel A. Gross, The Big Roundtable

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