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.

* * *

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.

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8 Responses

  1. SLK in SF says:

    Terrified was exactly how my first boyfriend and I felt (we met while students at BYU). Despite our dropping out and fleeing to California posthaste, that terror and the closet from which it sprang ultimately killed our relationship. Of course this was many years ago.

    My main issue with John’s post…

    I think the two of you may be looking at different parts of the elephant. 😉

  2. I think my post was clearly framed as a discussion of a gay Mormon experience… I understand that things are going to be different for gay Unitarians or Episcopalians or Agnostics.

    It seems you’re implying that life would be much better for gay Mormons if they could just somehow dispense with their faith. Setting aside the fact that it just doesn’t work that way… I had made the transition to a secular gay worldview by about 1992. I thought I was just fine without God and without creed for about 13 years… Until I had an encounter with God. And the end result of that encounter was the realization that I’d be willing to cross an ocean of “existential terror” for continuous fellowship with the God who revealed himself to me in that encounter.

    Religion doesn’t need homophobia… In fact, there’s no homophobia in true religion. For historical reasons, many religious communities — including the LDS community — are afflicted with it. But there’s value in the struggle to transcend homophobia within the framework of LDS faith, and within the LDS community. There are few things in life more rewarding than watching the lights suddenly go on and seeing somebody suddenly “get it”; or when members of a faith community transcend hurt and misunderstanding through self-revelation and mutual forgiveness.

    We will never be able to access some of the most profound rewards life has to offer If we aren’t willing to wrestle — and sacrifice.

  3. Daniel says:

    Wow, John, did your “encounter with god” give you the ability to discern what “true religion” is? Because my meaning of “true religion” is “a set of beliefs that are not justified by any evidence whatever, but which people use to tell other people how to live.” And one that we’d all be better off without, gay or straight.

    I’m sorry that your metaphysical meanderings have left you feeling aligned with organisations many of which plainly despise you, and in some cases actively campaign against your rights and goals, including the right to be alive.

    It’s not ‘denial’ to realise that sin is not a real concept — it’s a natural conclusion when one realises that there is no evidence for any god or any supernatural beings, and when one decides to live by reason and not superstition.

  4. Alan says:

    It seems youre implying that life would be much better for gay Mormons if they could just somehow dispense with their faith.

    Wait a second…how did I imply secularism was the way to go? I wasn’t even talking about secularism versus religion, or a “way to go.” I was talking about the existential terror of the closet in the context of Mormonism. You have mentioned on occasion that you’ve met younger gay Mormons who seem to have it together (not talking about me here)… ever wonder what was different about their upbringing? My theory is that the “existential terror of the closet” is not what it once was, either in secular society or Mormon society.

  5. Alan – you’re right… I misread your argument. It probably has to do with the fact that I know you’ve rejected Mormon belief, and it sounded to me as if you were saying, “Sillies, you don’t have to go through all that…” It’s something I hear all the time from secular gays.

    All the same, my misreading aside, the point of my essay was not that everyone necessarily has to go through the stages I described. I have observed (in fact, recently have been having some very interesting conversations with) gay men of your generation who are faithful Mormons and whose experience is closer to what you’ve described. I agree it is a very good thing. But I’m not sure it’s close to being the norm yet, even among your generation.

  6. Alan says:

    Well, my main point is actually to create some mutual understanding, not further divide. Generally, “secular gays” tend to think that the Mormon idea of not using one’s sexuality to define oneself is just another instance of Mormon homophobia. But this discourse came about in Mormon culture to combat the “existential terror of the closet”; church leaders wanted to help those “struggling” feel that they can be happy — and as a result, there has been an affective change in the culture. Many younger gay Mormons would not even saying they are “struggling.” These voices tend to get drowned out by discussions of suicide, depression, existential terror, etc — and the effect is a kind of high intensity conversation that focuses on the clinical aspects of the situation (“how do we help these people?”) rather than the theological.

  7. ExMoHoMoDon says:

    I have taken halting and often terrifying steps–first being honest with myself about my homosexuality, then coming out to family and friends, and finally utterly rejecting the poison that is Mormonism and religion in general. I have never felt the need to reject the idea of faith in God and I remain profoundly interested in the teachings of Christ–I simply feel no organization on earth represents those teachings. I have become comfortable with uncertainty and simply saying about a lot of things, including God that “I just don’t know.’ My extended Mormon family, with a few exceptions helped me leave Mormonism. They are narrow, fearful, judgmental and in 30 years have never visited me or asked anything about my children–I suppose because my kids are adopted and not members of the ‘True Church’. After doing everything the Mormon Church asked me to do and experiencing aversion therapy at BYU–I am happy to be free of Mormonism and I think any gay person should run–not walk away from it. Leaving Mormonism may in fact be the beginning of your spiritual journey–not the end.

  1. February 6, 2011

    […] Kiley asks a difficult question about church participation after excommunication (related to Alan’s post): Is it a powerful stance of refusing to let them kick you out, or is it accepting a seat at the […]

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