(RNS) Jerry Argetsinger never felt a twinge of tension between being gay and being Mormon.

gerald argetsinger

Jerry Argetsinger gives a talk at the University of Missouri about the increasing number of gay Mormon characters and themes in theater. He is also the editor of a new anthology of short works that deal with homosexuality and Mormonism. RNS photo by Kellie Kotraba/Columbia FAVS


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Nobody talked about homosexuality in his Oregon congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints 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.

Fortunately, the young theater major left a month later for his two-year LDS mission in Denmark, which, Argetsinger said, 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 said: private acceptance from various Mormon leaders but no public acknowledgment.

That may be changing.

Last 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.

The book features 25 short stories and four plays, each work exploring how it felt to be gay in families, or at church, or on missions.

“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.”

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.

Tony Kushner discusses Angels in America at 20, during a Commonwealth Club program in San Francisco's Herbst Theatre on Nov 6. 2010.

Tony Kushner discusses Angels in America at 20, during a Commonwealth Club program in San Francisco’s Herbst Theatre on Nov 6. 2010. Photo by Ed Ritger courtesy Commonwealth Club


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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 said. “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 said. “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. 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 — spiritual confirmation that they should wed.

“When I found out, there was a question whether or not to stay with the marriage,” Gail Argetsinger said. “I felt overpoweringly moved to stay. Ours is a partnership beyond the movie image of a marriage.”

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. Gail Argetsinger 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), their mother said.

At the beginning, there were tough times and a “steep learning curve,” Jerry Argetsinger acknowledged, 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 said. “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 said, 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 said, 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 said. “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

Advise and Consent  by Allen Drury book cover

Advise and Consent by Allen Drury book cover Photo courtesy amazon.com


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Argetsinger began researching Mormon gay literature about five years ago.

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  novel “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.

Kushner, on the other hand, got a lot about Mormonism right in his depiction of closeted gay Mormon Joe Pitt in “Angels in America.”

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 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 said, and his short story “Gay Messiah” is included in this volume.

Argetsinger said, 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 said, must decide alone — or with divine help.

Argetsinger certainly has.

(Peggy Fletcher Stack writes for The Salt Lake Tribune.)

YS/AMB END STACK

12 Comments

  1. Gay Mormons like Jerry have been indoctrinated with self hatred for so long they don’t believe they’re worthy of being treated equally or spending their lives with someone their very nature tells them they should be with. They’re brain trained to believe that would be sinful.

    Whilst offering up yet another deceitful Pro-Mormons and Gays PR fluff piece (A La Josh Weed) is Jerry aware that only 2 months ago his “Church” was a major sponsor of the ‘World Congress of Families’?

    The World Congress of Families was recently banned from holding a conference in London by the British Law Society because of their Anti-Gay agenda.

    As long as this heinous cult continues to fund hate towards the GLBT community people like me will be compelled to point out the hypocrisy.

  2. Dave – I would love to sit down and talk to you. I believe we would find much in common. One of the primary purposes of the book is my version of your exact points. The culture of Mormonism, particularly over the past four decades has been to hate gays and more recently to lead the fight against gay rights. But there are some of us who despise that part of our culture. I’ve never hated myself for being gay and many of my life experiences have been pretty typical. I was fortunate to have parents, for example, who without ever letting on that they knew what was going on, welcomed my boy friends into our home with complete knowledge of what was happening on “our sleep overs”. My gay role models are men such as David Leavitt and Paul Monette whose writings taught me how to be a proud gay man without fitting into the stereotypes of the culture. Gay Mormons will never progress beyond the very self-hatred that you describe until they accept their homosexuality and stop beating themselves up for being gay. That’s a primary theme of the book. I love being gay; I also love the spiritual core of my religion. At the same time I hate the homophobic aspects of the Mormon culture and fight against those. I also hate (like Larry Kramer’s example) some of the hedonistic aspects of the gay culture. I am completely aware of the damage the church’s participation in Prop 8 did to community, church and families. But that has also given gay Mormons like me a platform on which we are fighting internally for change. I am aware of Mormons participation in the World Congress of Families and other hate organizations such as the National Organization for Marriage and I work openly within my church to eliminate those heinous parts of our culture. You should point out the hypocrisy. I agree with you completely. But I can also love the good that the Church does in people’s lives, because it is a great force for good. But like all people it can be good and destructive simultaneously because it does include many people who sustain the good and who fight against the bad. I’m proud to be one of those.

    • Jerry,

      Assuming you’re the Jerry in the article?

      Have you ever heard of Stockholm Syndrome?

      Stockholm syndrome, or capture–bonding, is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages express empathy and sympathy and have positive feelings toward their captors, sometimes to the point of defending them. These feelings are generally considered irrational in light of the danger or risk endured by the victims, who essentially mistake a lack of abuse from their captors for an act of kindness.

      Sadly you, your brain and your soul have been captured by this cult since childhood, the fact you served a mission means you’ve been through the ultimate indoctrination (brainwashing) process at the M.T.C. which is virtually (but never absolutely) impossible to recover from. – Until you’re dead it’s never too late.

      If you were to step outside your Mormon Box World and look at the bigger picture of global humanity with just a little sprinkle of common sense you would see what absolute nonsense the Mormon “Church” really is. It’s possible to be a good person without giving 10% of your income to this cult and helping to fund the hate groups I mentioned – Which is what you are actually doing.

      I have other Mormon friends who’re just like you. In their youth they had their cake. Now they’re older they’ve “repented” of their “sins”, returned to ‘good standing’ within the “Church” and are inadvertently helping to burn down the bakery.

      You’re gay but chose to marry a woman believing it the only path to eternal salvation. Had you not been indoctrinated you would have been mentally and emotionally free to fall in love with someone of the same sex as your nature intended. Instead you just used them for sex in your youth and then what? “Repented”?.

      It’s my understanding that Homosexuals in the “church” today have their “church” file annotated permanently. These annotations explicitly ban them from working with youth in any capacity and can only be removed with ‘first presidency’ approval. So it appears the treatment of homosexuals is actually worse now than it was a few years ago. You with your permanently annotated file would not be allowed to work with youth on the pageant for example.

      Like Josh Weed “you people” are given undeserved print space because you help build the facade the “Church’s” PR department are so desperate to display – we love the gays. Meanwhile in the office next door the “Apostles” are planning the next underhanded attack.

      I have no interest whatsoever in “sitting down and talking” with someone peddling your “Cult” as anything other than the ludicrous afterlife insurance policy scam that it is. If you ever step outside the box and see the light, look me up.

  3. I’m the Jeff Laver mentioned in this article. Johnny Townsend and I helped Jerry put the book together. I am not a member of the Mormon Church anymore, nor do I share Jerry’s optimism about Mormon acceptance of gay people, or of this book. Jerry knows this, but the three of us made a great team. The book is not a pro-Mormon piece of PR. It gives us twenty-five gay Mormon stories, and shows a wide range of often painful experiences, including alienation and suicide.

    • Hi Jeff,

      “The book is not a pro-Mormon piece of PR”

      That may not be your intention, this article however is exactly the type of PR the Mormon “Church” is peddling.

      Another Gay man happily married with children to a woman.

      See how happy he is. You can do it too if you come back to us with your 10%.

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  5. Melanie Good

    I am so very proud of Gerry for coming out. I knew him as a child growing up Mormon in upstate NY. He was one of my all time favorite people! My only wish is he could have lived as a gay man with no one judging him. His wife is a lovely woman, and I know they are great partners. But, having said that, I knew he was gay then… I just thought he didn’t. It breaks my heart that he knew and was forced to surpress his natural feeling to be in a religion. All my love to him and every gay man that should be welcomed in not turned away.

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