Understanding the “Closet” in Present-day Mormonism
This post is in response to John Gustav-Wrathall’s recent blog post titled “Flight from Self.”
He starts by saying that the faithful gay Mormon who hasn’t yet “come out of the closet” can be under the impression that the rewards of Heaven are waiting for him or her. He writes:
We think that because scripture describes our final reward as a “crown,” or an “inheritance,” that exaltation is something like becoming king of the world.
As a result of one’s emergent sexuality, though, whereby one must “come out of the closet” either publicly or privately, the gay Mormon can find his or her “world turned upside-down.” All of a sudden he or she feels like “the last rat in the spiritual race.” However, John says:
Jesus came to show us what exaltation looks like. It is actually much more like giving up than acquiring; it is more like descending than rising.
Because love of one’s community and one’s partner is actually more about giving than receiving, John argues that gay Mormons are “blessed” to have their worlds turned upside-down. They can become more in tune with a healthy spirituality that is not focused on the self nor judgments of others reaching Heaven’s rewards. Gay Mormons can also be good partners, provided they get over the “existential terror” of coming out of the closet. In fact, John argues that when one comes to understand love in this light (as about giving more than receiving, service over rewards, caring over judgment), homophobia can “no longer touch us in any meaningful way.”
As a community, John says that gay Mormons who’ve learned this lesson should be present for those at the beginning of their journeys. He concludes by saying:
When a gay man or a lesbian comes out of the closet, at least a certain amount of existential terror is unavoidable. I hope that we can get better at being there for each other when that happens. […] Disorientation for a while is normal until we get our bearings. In the meanwhile, we need to help each other hold out hope for the best, rather than settling for something unworthy. We need to make real love tangible.
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My main issue with John’s post is that I don’t agree with what seems to be a premise of “when a gay man or a lesbian comes out of the closet, at least a certain amount of existential terror is unavoidable.” This premise is what John builds on to delineate the spiritual growth of the gay Mormon. A conversion of “terror” into a “blessing.”
This “existential terror” is only extant if one lives in a world in which coming to terms with one’s gayness must be a negotiation with one’s and/or others’ original problematic expectations. What sociologists have found is that when these expectations are not present, there is actually no “closet” to come out of. Nowadays, tons of people do not follow the closet narrative when describing their life. I’m a good example. I would never say that I “came out” (nor, was I ever “in the closet”); I just liked boys and started dating them when I wanted to date someone.
My life might not seem to correlate with the Mormon milieu, but actually it does, so bear with me. In an attempt to create a more healthy Mormon community, Mormon leaders have tried to dispel the “existential terror of the closet.” They have done this in part by saying that there is no closet to come out of because one’s sexual feelings are not a total identifier; no one is the “last rat in the spiritual race.” One is so much more than “gay” (or “straight”).
In some ways, this was a rather positive development, which began in the 1990s. For one, youth are encouraged to put off the question of sexuality until they are more mature to address it, rather than fret about a “secret.” Secondly, the queer Mormon youth does not necessarily feel a sense of disbelonging — at least until she or he thinks about marriage. So, whereas heterosexism still must be grappled with eventually, as a “closet” of sorts remains, there is a manifestly significant reduction of “existential terror.”
As a result of this reduction, a lot of younger queer Mormons are more stable with their identities than their older counterparts. Some identify as “gay,” others as “same-gender attracted,” and many others as just plain “Mormon.” These Mormons can focus on service for the sake of service as opposed to service for the sake of a “flight from self.” How these Mormons will continue to shape their culture will seen in the years to come.