“We’ve never had someone come out and say, ‘I’m mormon, I’m gay, and I’m going to stick to the commandments the Church teaches…’” –Jimmy Hales, gay Mormon and YouTube celebrity
In late February, Jimmy Hales, 25-year-old BYU student, made a cybersplash with his “live” coming-out vid. Shortly afterward, he sat down with Samy Galvez of the Student Review for an interview. In that interview and in his blogpost on the experience, Hales elaborates an ideology of gay Mormonism that is not only quirky (for a gay person to hold, that is) but also self-defeating and even dangerous. (I’ll be quoting the SR interview often, with (#)#.## time notation; I’ll try not to quote the blogpost at all, as much because he uses multiple spaces between sentences as because text articles defy such easy citation.)
But first let’s talk about me. I’ve never point-blank denied my own sexuality to anyone (except, naturally, myself, early on); but then, neither have I ever acknowledged it in any words so straightforward as “I’m gay”. There have been gestures toward both disclosure (as in responding to the query “Who do you find attractive (in the ward/class/etc.)?” with the quip “Male or female?” and ranting incessantly about heteronormativity) and denial (as in applying the adjectives “beautiful”, “attractive”, and even, occasionally, “hot” to a woman or disingenuously claiming to have no “stake” in the gay rights debate). Perhaps this strategy is only personal, springing from my love of ambiguity, wordplay, and just basically being a tease. God knows it’s becoming harder and harder to maintain. But I’m sure, however pretentiously, that there’s more to it. That, on the one hand, I don’t want put my sexuality on trial in the way I’m sure a full-scale coming out would entail (“Are you sure you’re gay? how ‘bout bi? asexual? how long have you known?”); I’d much rather leave it unacknowledged with parents and roommates and only tacitly so with close friends and certain others (those weird people who don’t quite fit into the former category). On the other, I especially don’t want to have the “So what does this all mean?” talk, to either affirm or reject my continued ideological and, well, physical loyalty to the Church. That discussion, of the implications of sexual orientation, is emotionally fraught, and always momentous. I’m not ready to have it because, first, like Hales, I’m not about to leave the Church, and, second, unlike Hales, I’m not about to confront these questions head on with the blithe, self-denying “Celibacy! Yeah, it sucks, but I know this Church is true!”
While it’s true that coming out can have myriad positive psychological benefits, as Hales discusses starting around 15.30, the manner of that coming out–and particularly the way, afterwards, that the person’s newly disclosed sexuality is mediated for his/her community’s sake–ought to dictate the conditions under which that disclosure is or is not an affirmation, by which I mean a confession which maintains that which was confessed as a) beyond negotiation and b) fundamentally positive. The progress of the gay pride movement both inside and without the Church has made it much easier to fulfill the first condition. It is the second one which, though also far less difficult than ever before, remains tricky, particularly in a Mormon context. A church that just dug in its heels re: “homosexual behavior” is going to have a hard time pulling the reversal they will eventually have to (contra Hales, starting at 12.35; 3:55 in the YouTube video) anytime soon.
Hales seeks to persuade “other closet gay Mormons”, whom he calls his “main audience” (8.41), that “It’s not as hard and not as scary as you think it is to come out as a gay Mormon” (8.55). He spends most of the interview’s tenth minute talking about how overwhelmingly positive the reaction to his announcement has been. But in pretending like his experience could function as some sort of template, Hales completely ignores the very particular way in which he came out and the role that may have played in the widespread acceptance and congratulation he’s received from mainstream Mormons. In fact, in spite of his plans not to marry a, um, “member of the opposite sex” (see the video description; also note “sex” not “gender”–I’m looking at you, USGA), Jimmy Hales actually resembles Josh Weed quite a bit, whose similarly viral coming-out story brought increased visibility to the “phenomenon” of gay Mormons while at the same time providing ammunition to those who only find Church-sanctioned responses (either lifelong celibacy or a mixed-orientation marriage) remotely acceptable.
Throughout the interview, the blogpost, and the video, Hales tries to render his sexual orientation acceptable by rendering it non-threatening. He can say, at 3.25, “I really embraced the fact that I was gay, and it was me, and I’m awesome” and then turn right around with the claim that his bishop was “inspired” to tell him his sexuality “sucks” (4.10). Thus the thrill of discovering and coming to terms with one’s own sexuality is replaced by the renewed self-loathing of the first dark days (or years!) of realization; a little happy secret turns into an inconvenient truth. The gay Mormon who wishes to assimilate must renounce those aspects of his identity he knows to be positive, those he may inwardly celebrate: his condition is acceptable only insofar as he acknowledges it to be problematic–only insofar as “[it] sucks”. Hales clearly grasps this, though he qualifies around 16.00 that he “doesn’t blame” gay Mormons who choose to leave. But by coming out the way he did, and especially because he did it so publicly, Hales to some extent forecloses dissenting (both from his own path and the Church’s prescriptions/theology) approaches even as he claims to have sympathy for them: indeed, the interview excerpt I quote at the beginning of the article indicates that he is aware of his role in promoting a New Assimilationism as the ideal path for LGBT Mormons. In the (translated) words of Jean-Paul Sartre, “When we say that man chooses himself, we do mean that every one of us must choose himself; but by that we also mean that in choosing for himself he chooses for all men.”
As a further example of his outreach approach, Hales says, “it took me forever to come out to myself, and get on terms with this I can’t imagine how hard it would be for straight people who aren’t gay to get to the same terms I was on. That can’t be easy for straight people” (starting at 3.48). Yeah, well. I’m sure it’s not easy for white people to conceive of being black or for men to “come to terms” with the existence of women. And that’s exactly the reason the ruling or majority group has no right to enforce its normative standards of behavior, its bougie qualms, its neuroses onto the entire population. Hales is carving out a space for himself as the Booker T. Washington of the Mormon gay rights movement (such as it is): just get along, prove that you’re a valuable person by their standards and in spite of your “condition”, and maybe someday–things just might get a little bit better. (See again Hales’ discussion of his belief that the Church’s stance won’t change “much”, 12.35.)
So what now? If we can’t retreat into the comfort of the Hales’ New Assimilationism (as I’m going to continue to call it)–which teaches that gay people are just normal people with their particular burden to bear, that, if “reached out to” and “loved” properly (which essentially means, in this context, comforted in order to be controlled), won’t do the “stupid” (11.11) thing and leave the Church, won’t continue to be major contributors to the mass exodus of young Mormons–where, then, can we turn for peace? Back to the theologically problematic there-is-no-one-solution rubric, an attempt to be humane without explicitly denying the authority of the General Authorities, which implicitly admits that leaving might be the best solution for some LGBTs–leaving, that is, a Church which purports both theoretically (via the much-vaunted Plan of Happiness) and practically (via its massive Missionary Program) to be the answer for everyone everywhere? But you see that, too, commits the fundamental error of celibacy advocacy: through it’s individualistic, do-your-own-thing premise, it absolves the Church of any institutional responsibility to deal with gay people, and, consequently, fails to confront the fact that the widespread existence of happy homosexuals flies in the face of everything that institution’s leaders have been teaching about them for the last fifty years. (Oh, and contra Hales at 12.05, hierarchy higher-ups have been saying much much more than “very little, if any[thing]” about gay Mormons “prior to now”–it’s just all been extremely negative and unscientific and, yes, bigoted [see The Miracle of Forgiveness, which remains in print, for one].) It would be easy at this point to give up, to say that there is (currently) no good–self-affirming–way to be openly gay and actively Mormon. But that we cannot do. A realization of our common bonds and our common oppression as gay Mormons is within reach, and it is in that solidarity–among ourselves first, and not with the Church–that our deliverance lies. But it will require transgression–ideological, and not necessarily physical. When our parents kick us out, we must realize we are not alone in the world with that oxymoronic reality, the bigoted Christian. When our seminary teachers hold up pictures of men hugging as the very definition of evil, we must remind them of Alan Turing, of Jane Addams, of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and we must not pretend like our self-abnegation or self-loathing will deliver them, our friends, from their prejudice and hate, their internalized heterosexism. And when our bishops tell us we suck, we must laugh and say, if God is God, there can be no such thing as a mantle to oppression, a divine right to encourage self-loathing or to practice anything less than empathy for the alienated.
Oh yes, to be gay in this Church is to be alienated–from yourself, from the Church, from your own family; from the hetero-romance they all expect you to be interested in enacting. The fact is, “homosexuality” does pose fundamental problems for the Church’s theory and praxis, its doctrine and its policies. It’s time we acknowledged that, became willing to embody the existential threat to the reigning incarnation of Mormonism that we are by clinging to our self-esteem in the withering face of sacralized heterosexuality. And when we do “go public”, the stance we need to take is to be better found in the lyrics of Lady Gaga than in the YouTube videos of Jimmy Hales: “there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are / ‘cause He made you perfect babe / so hold your head up girl and you’ll go far / […] don’t hide yourself in regret / just love yourself and your set” (emphasis mine; I just want you to note how appropriately Gaga emphasizes the need for public self-esteem–for, quite literally, gay pride). There’s a reason the New Assimilationism has never been so publicly promoted (by anyone who was actually gay) prior to his vid. And why all of us, gay or straight (or bi or trans or etc.), who hope to see the Church move on from its current half-hearted and/or insensitive efforts (“maybe you shouldn’t kick your kids out”/ “[‘]manage[’]/diminish your [‘]tendencies[’]”–see, for instance, mormonsandgays.org, particularly the Elder Christofferson Q&A section) in an authentically humane direction, should stand up to it.