I’m a gay Mormon, and I am Brenda
Coming out as gay to Latter-day Saints is always emotionally exhausting for me. I came out slowly, first to myself at 19 and then fully to others at 24.
Before I was fully out, in 2016, I had to balance my coming out between the LDS Church’s stated positions on homosexual activity and my own desire to live openly and honestly. I had to learn to not waste emotional energy on people who would love me with conditions. I didn’t have the emotional fortitude then to come out and face pleas for me to “live the gospel” or “not act on my attractions.” I had heard for many years about the evils of homosexuality in General Conference, Sunday School manuals, and even Latter-day Saint worship services. Heavenly Father’s love came with conditions, and many people followed that teaching in lockstep.
Shortly after returning home from my LDS mission to Thailand, while visiting family out-of-state, I came out to a dear friend from my mission. We were driving after a night with many other missionaries and my mission president, and my anxiety was at an all-time-high. I felt like I needed to come out to her, but I was terrified. If I came out as gay rather than “struggling with same-sex attraction,” I was not sure what reaction to expect.
As I sat in the car on that hot Arizona summer night, my sweat wasn’t simply from the arid air. I kept trying to muster the courage to share my truth, but I was already exhausted before I could get the words out of my mouth.
Once I told her that I was gay, she simply laughed. My heart fell into my stomach. Was my sexuality a joke? Or was she uncomfortable with tough, emotionally vulnerable conversations? She told me that she had long wondered if I was gay. While I appreciated that I had felt safe enough to come out to her, I did not appreciate her response. I had so many sacred moments and ideas to share about how I had come to this realization. My friend, however, was laughing as I tried to be emotionally vulnerable. I think she had wondered when I would feel safe enough to come out to her, but after I finally came out in a string of word vomit I certainly didn’t feel much safer
Over the past two months, I watched Progressive Mormons, devout Latter-day Saints, and many devout Latter-day Saint (and non-LDS) academics trash the Hulu miniseries Under the Banner of Heaven. From screeds mocking every still and every creative choice to a lengthy article written by a prominent voice in Mormon Studies in extremely problematic publications, Latter-day Saints did what they have done since the trek to Utah: circle the wagons around the LDS Church.
To many progressive Mormons, Under the Banner of Heaven was a threat to the beloved faith of their childhood. It represented a threat to the dominant narrative that Latter-day Saints are always good neighbors, friends, and allies to the LGBTQ community. I watched as I saw myself in the narrative of Under the Banner of Heaven. While I love and value my Latter-day Saint heritage, I have been deeply hurt by people who will never see me as a survivor of my Mormon upbringing. Latter-day Saints left me with wounds. Then they asked why I protested when they picked at the scabs.
After episode four of the miniseries, I had to stop watching. The total dismissal of the miniseries as inaccurate or “bad” was lumped in the same critiques that I had faced from Latter-day Saints too many times. For the first 26 years of my life, many Latter-day Saints viewed my homosexuality as a problem to fix. When Latter-day Saints attacked the miniseries, they were again picking at my scabs.
At the end of the day, LDS folks chose to dismiss the experiences of survivors like me. They pierced my side with Proposition 8, many General Conference talks, and the 2015 Policy of Exclusion. I thought that I had healed these wounds, but they picked at the scabs with every overly charged dismissal of the miniseries. I do not necessarily blame individual Latter-day Saints for this reaction; I do blame Latter-day Saint culture and teachings, though.
I had to escape the Laffertys of our culture. And I did. I have no regrets, only love for my Latter-day Saint family and friends who see me as a survivor rather than someone with a victim complex. I feel like I am Brenda from the miniseries because I identified so deeply with her story. Will Brenda’s death and, by extension, my own suffering and story be in vain or will we learn from our mistakes? Latter-day Saints can repent and embrace their LGBTQ loved ones. It’s time for you to circle the wagons around us, not the LDS Church.
Jacob is an openly gay Mormon and practicing Episcopalian. He served a Latter-day Saints mission in Thailand from 2009 to 2011. He lives in Millcreek, Utah with his husband of nearly six years. You can read more of Jacob’s writing about his experience with Mormonism, his newfound Episcopalian faith, and his deep commitment to social justice at Unboxing Queer Mormonism.
Jacob, I am sorry for the cruelty the church has inflicted on you. I protested Prop 8 and was ostracized by my family because of it. But your reaction to criticism of this show is extremely Mormon, and you have some soul-searching of your own to do. Criticism of something you like or identify with is not a de facto criticism of you, though many Mormons often think that.
What you do there–reducing every possible motive someone might have for objecting to something you found meaningful–to a single motive is a lot like the Mormon habit of labeling anyone who objects to anything the church does as simply “anti-Mormon.” Wanting to protect the church isn’t the only reason people have criticized the show’s myriad problems. Plenty of people have criticized the show because they think criticisms of the church are more successful when they are accurate.
People have also criticized the show for its misogynist treatment of Brenda and other women in the show. Here’s one article about that. https://slate.com/culture/2022/05/under-the-banner-of-heaven-hulu-jon-krakauer-mormonism.html If you identify with Brenda so strongly, I hope you can see that.
Rather than try to rebut any specific criticisms of the show, you simply dismiss them all because YOU found the show meaningful. You essentially say that because you found a TV show meaningful, there can be no legitimate criticism of it. Do you really think that? Do you think it’s impossible for there to be legitimate problems in a TV show? And do you really think that your feelings about something render everyone else’s opinions invalid? Because that’s a way Mormons not infrequently wield a testimony.
It feels like you’re missing the point here. I didn’t read Jacob’s essay as being upset that people were criticizing something he likes. Rather, that people were dismissing the entire series and the questions is asks wholesale based on nitpicky complaints about inaccuracies in representing Mormon culture, and by so doing, were finding yet another excuse to avoid examining how Mormon teachings or cultural practices harm others in ways that he has personally experienced. The “reducing every possible motive someone might have for objecting to something you found meaningful” is frequently demonstrated in the reactionary polemics and blanket dismissals of the series as recycled anti-Mormon tropes. I agree that criticisms are generally more successful when they are accurate but that also doesn’t justify fixating on inaccuracies as a proxy to dismiss criticisms, which we’ve seen a lot of in Mormon responses to the series.
As for the series being misogynist in its treatment of Brenda, Max is entitled to his opinion but many also strongly disagree. The show repeatedly demonstrates the misogyny of 1980’s Mormondom as a means of critique. Brenda and Dianna are portrayed as the strongest characters in the series, largely by resisting patriarchal dominance. Brenda’s death is even portrayed as a faithful martyrdom for a relatively feminist expression of the faith. Jeb Pyre’s story ends with him swallowing his pride and submitting to the desires of his wife, Becca, in contrast to how he flexed his patriarchal authority earlier in the series regarding the baptism of their children. His story is a fitting end to a series that so effectively portrays how the Mormon culture of patriarchal dominance produces dangerous men. Jeb becomes less dangerous to Becca when he chooses her and his daughters over asserting his rightness. It is presented in stark contrast with Dan’s and Ron’s relationships with Matilda and Dianna. As others have pointed out, the theme of the series is arguably more about patriarchy than it is of Mormonism per se: https://www.vulture.com/article/under-the-banner-of-heaven-finale-analysis-lds-patriarchy.html
All of this to say that many who find themselves represented in the narrative of the miniseries—especially as victims of harmful Mormon teachings or cultural practices—find the refusal to engage seriously with the series, via nitpicky fixation on inaccuracies in a work of historical fiction, to be emotionally exhausting and hurtful.
I also want to shout out this excellent article in the SLTrib that I think is particularly applicable to this conversation: https://www.sltrib.com/artsliving/2022/06/05/stories-lafferty-women/
And I also recommend Taylor Petrey’s thoughtful review to serves as a model for Mormons to engage in mature and intelligent engagement with the series: https://religionandpolitics.org/2022/05/10/violence-in-mormon-ways-a-review-of-under-the-banner-of-heaven/
Scott Barrett, you write:
Ahem. The fact that you and I read something differently does not mean that I missed the point.
First: What evidence does Jacob provide that people found fault with the show as a way of “finding yet another excuse to avoid examining how Mormon teachings or cultural practices harm others in ways that he has personally experienced”? Is it possible that he’s wrong, and that a range of people are perfectly willing to examine the ways that Mormon teaching and cultural practices harm others, even as they think this show sucks?
Second, what evidence do you have for your reading of Jacob’s post? Does he distinguish between valid and invalid criticism of the show? Does he provide criteria for what would constitute valid criticism of the show? Does he acknowledge the possibility that valid criticism might even exist?
You then write
Yes, part of my point is that that’s a frequent Mormon response to any criticism of the church. Another part is that Jacob hasn’t shed it. He just directs it the other way.
Well, that may be. I don’t pay much attention to what active Mormons think these days. And that still doesn’t acknowledge the possibility that there could be valid criticisms of inaccuracies in the series.
FYI: I was a Mormon feminist and an adult in 1984. I really do not need you to mansplain to me the 1980s or the misogyny of the day, either in or out of the church.
You nonsensically claim that “Brenda and Dianna are portrayed as the strongest characters in the series, largely by resisting patriarchal dominance.” DUDE. BRENDA ASKS A BUNCH OF OLD MEN FOR PERMISSION TO GET A DIVORCE, WHICH SHE DID NOT NEED. In the FX series, she dies because she submits to the patriarchal dominance of the church.
Dustin Lance Black et al turn a real woman and her baby daughter who both died within living memory into the fridged woman who prompts the voyage of discovery of a fictional man. That’s misogynist. They exploit her death in order to pursue a nonsensical plot in which the church goes out of its way to protect two low-life cowards it had already excommunicated, at her expense, when really, the reason she died is that her husband didn’t tell her that his brothers planned to murder her.
DLB et al also erase the agency and actions of Chloe Low, the third person on the Laffertys’ supposedly divine hit list, and substitute her husband for her as the intended victim. In the scene where Pyre and Taba talk to the Lows, Chloe is almost entirely silent. That’s misogyny that erases a real woman.
On what basis do you claim that “Jeb Pyre’s story ends with him swallowing his pride and submitting to the desires of his wife, Becca”? How does he do that? There’s so little of the story left when he gets home. What does he do that’s less patriarchal or dangerous? Given that she’d told him she was planning to leave him, it seemed to me that the fact that she was still there meant she had found a way to make peace even with the patriarchy of a man who had lost his faith.
If you are sincere in pointing out that “the theme of the series is arguably more about patriarchy than it is of Mormonism per se,” you should not have any problem with critiques pointing out the myriad ways in which the show is not actually about Mormonism, since they agree with you. It shouldn’t be exhausting or hurtful at all to acknowledge that, if that’s what you really think.
As for Taylor Petrey, I am glad that his thinking on such topics has grown more sophisticated, since he is the person I quote in this article, who could not tolerate any comparison between Joseph Smith and Brian David Mitchell. I don’t really consider him someone whose lead I need to follow on these topics, since I’ve been thinking about them carefully far longer than he has. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/cifamerica/2010/nov/16/elizabeth-smart-brian-mitchell-utah
As for the link to the SLC piece you provided, which I read a week ago, here’s what I had to say on facebook in response to it:
I love combat memoirs, and one reason is that they were the first thing that approximated my experience of my mission, of naively volunteering to do something I thought would make the world a better place only to realize very quickly that I was actually engaging in something really ugly. The description of military hierarchies and chicken shit rules resonated very clearly with me. I had to read those because I couldn’t find a mission memoir, but let me just point out that this means I understood viscerally a certain connection between warfare and religion decades ago.
So when people say they found emotional resonance between their own experiences and Under the Banner of Heaven, well, OK, that’s fine. I get that. There hasn’t been much out there that tries to describe Mormon experience accurately and truthfully–Lularich, maybe, or Abducted in Plain Sight, which I have yet to watch. (Angels in America definitely did NOT try to get Mormon experience right.) When you’re a subculture, you sometimes take what you can get in terms of representation.
But to take it back to combat again, when I’m watching a war movie that’s obvious propaganda, that eliminates the agency of women, that exonerates the guilty, that misrepresents the ideology of the combatants, all while claiming to be factual and accurate about everything that matters, I’m gonna be pissed, and I’m gonna wonder why the film maker was afraid of the truth.
And that’s how I feel about UtBoH. The fact that people see their lives in it doesn’t mean that a faithful representation wouldn’t be even better.
It would certainly elevate the conversations we’re able to have about Mormon experience.
Just FYI, I commissioned this post from Jacob because I was impressed with many of his Tweets.
I can vouch that the post is indeed talking about a specific kind of criticism from active LDS those who feel the need to “circle the wagons around the LDS Church.” Jacob’s point is not so much about the miniseries as about the fact that certain members’ need to defend the Church in response to UtBoH reactivates the pain he felt when people responded to his coming out with defenses of the Church without regard for him.
Yes, there are other motivations and reasons for criticism of UtBOH–as you’ve articulated–but the point here (and one I’ve felt myself so often in the past) is that sometimes you think you’re healed, and then you see a parallel, and you realize you’re not. I’m sure you can relate as well.
Thanks for reading and engaging!
You asked why I read Jacob’s post as addressing people who use nitpicky complaints about inaccuracies in representation as a proxy for dismissing the entire series wholesale and thereby excusing themselves from grappling with the questions raised by the series. Specifically, you request evidence that these people exist and suggest that “a range of people” have complaints about the show while being “perfectly willing to examine the ways that Mormon teaching and cultural practices harm others.” Further, you insinuate that because Jacob does not specifically devote space to distinguishing between what he considers valid and invalid criticism of the series that he does not “acknowledge the possibility that valid criticism might even exist.”
Might I suggest that 1) this post is addressed to a specific audience, and 2) Jacob does not say that all criticisms of the show are invalid.
There have been a wide range of responses from active members that demonstrate the use minor inaccuracies as a proxy for wholesale dismissal and disengagement. Inasmuch as you “don’t pay much attention to what active Mormons think these days,” it is possible that you have simply missed this discourse. That said, it has certainly been prevalent enough that I would find that surprising. Regardless, having witnessed these responses myself—and having witnessed Jacob’s conversations with those promoting them—it made immediate sense to me that this was Jacob’s intended audience. I can see how if you don’t have that background context that it might read differently. That said, even without that background context I don’t think it follows that Jacob’s expression of dismay over a particular expression of criticism about the series means that ALL criticism of the show is invalid, or that there are not people who are simultaneously willing to genuinely engage in the conversation about the questions raised by the series while also being largely dissatisfied with it. This feels like one of these instances in which #NotAllMormons is implied.
May I further suggest that rather than immediately accusing Jacob of having not shed his Mormon habits by indiscriminately defending the series from all criticism that a less presumptive and adversarial response would be to simply ask: “Jacob, do you think there are valid criticisms of the series?”
Regarding my proposed alternative interpretation of the series in contrast to Max’s thesis in his Slate article: you first chastise me for mansplaining to you the 1980s and the misogyny of the day. I merely pointed out that “the show repeatedly demonstrates the misogyny of 1980’s Mormondom as a means of critique,” without any further elaboration. Is this mansplaining? I never presume that you are ignorant of the culture of the time period, nor do I attempt to explain it to you.
Regardless, you continue by disagreeing with my “nonsensical” opinion that Brenda and Dianna are portrayed as the strongest characters in the series in the way that they resist the patriarchal culture around them to their own peril. You highlight that both these women also demonstrate being submissive to patriarchal authority throughout the series. I fully agree, though I do not think that makes the other instances of their resistance any less compelling. Quite the contrary. I think it highlights just how insidiously omnipresent patriarchy is and how much intentional work is necessary to resist its influence. Furthermore, to portray Brenda or Dianna as wholesale bucking the patriarchy at every turn would have been a SIGNIFICANT historical departure from the real events beyond what it is already. Regardless, I found Brenda and Dianna’s characters the far most compelling for the reason that they most demonstrated courage to resist the toxic culture around them, even if they did it imperfectly and it ultimately cost one of their lives.
I agree with your critique that the portrayal of church leadership was hamfisted and at times irrational. I also wish that the female characters were better represented and that people like Chloe Low had been accurate to reality. I thoroughly agree that the show takes far too much of a male-centric lens. The show is not a feminist triumph by any means, but I do not think there are not elements that glimmer and worthy of recognition. The series is by no means an artistic masterpiece, but like any piece of art, much of its value comes from the meaning we extract from it by engaging in the conversations it facilitates. In that regard, I think the series is a flawed but successful artistic exploration of issues about faith, extremism, and misogyny in Mormon culture.
To the end, I suggested an alternative interpretation of the conclusion of Jeb Pyre’s story that highlights how Jeb becomes less dangerous by becoming less patriarchal. Inasmuch as you requested elaboration, please consider the following as merely one of many possible interpretations of Jeb’s story in the series. The abuses promoted by the Mormon culture of divinely-supported patriarchy is the common thread displayed across all the episodes and different timelines of the series. It turns up most prominently in Jeb’s story when he invokes male headship as the presiding priesthood authority of his home to overrule his wife’s objections to delaying their daughters’ baptisms. In contrast, Jeb’s decision at the end to swallow his doubts and his pride for the sake of his family represents his prioritizing of his wife’s desires over his own. He could have continued to use his voice and exert his authority by insisting that Becca confront the difficult truths that caused him to lose faith in the church, trying to convert Becca to his way of thinking. But that would have been another example of a Mormon man insisting they know better and prioritizing their desires over those of the women around them. Instead, Jeb meekly submits to the desires of his wife by taking up the cross of his doubts instead of laying it uninvited upon her shoulders. In this way, I think Jeb’s story is a fitting end to a series that effectively portrays how the Mormon culture of patriarchal dominance produces dangerous men, especially to the women around them.
Anyway, those are my thoughts, take them or leave them.
With all due respect, Monya, if that’s what this post is supposed to be about, Jacob should have written those things here. With no reference to such things in the post here, the post might want to be about the things you mention, but it’s not, because they are excluded.
Blog readers are not mind readers.
Scott Barrett, you write
You are of course welcome to suggest such things. It does not mean you’re right or that my criticisms of his post aren’t accurate.
Main Street Plaza is an ex-Mo blog. The specific audience you suggest Jacob is writing for is unlikely to find his work here.
And if Jacob does not explicitly state that all criticisms of the show are invalid, he comes pretty damn close. He inveighs against all criticisms of the show. He even objects to Patrick Mason’s response to the book before the show airs, in which Patrick explicitly states, “I have not seen any more than the publicly available previews and will withhold judgment until I actually watch it.” WTF?
I deliberately responded to Jacob in the way he presented himself here. His accusations and complaints include assertions that “Latter-day Saints did what they have done since the trek to Utah: circle the wagons around the LDS Church” and “When Latter-day Saints attacked the miniseries, they were again picking at my scabs.”
He lumped all reactions to the show into a single category and claimed that attacks on the miniseries are an attack on him. He has already personalized the conversation to an astonishing degree.
If he did not want to have that rhetoric taken seriously, he should not have engaged in it.
And don’t you think maybe the world has already had enough of Mormon men telling Mormon women how they ought to talk to other Mormon men? Surely you can let that go, if only for the duration of this conversation.
You claim that I “chastise [you] for mansplaining to [me] the 1980s and the misogyny of the day.” Did I? Did I say, “It was inappropriate of you to mansplain anything to me”? Or did I just let you know that in future conversations, you didn’t have to worry about going there, because I’ve been in enough conversations about gender and feminism with Mormon men to know that such a warning is often appropriate?
You write, about Brenda and Dianna,
All Brenda really does to buck the patriarchy in the show is try to get Allen’s brothers to let him pay his traffic fines, and then help Dianna leave Ron. But Chloe Low and President Stowe helped with that too, so it was sanctioned from above. It didn’t make Brenda a maverick.
All Dianna does to buck the patriarchy in the show is convince Matilda to leave her mother-in-law’s house, when Dan is already on his way to prison. It’s presented as dramatic in the show, but it’s silly and manipulative. Law enforcement is already involved, and surely Jeb Pyre could ride to Matilda’s rescue, just as he rides to Dan’s in the insane battle for supremacy between the brothers in that casino bathroom.
Lordy, dude. “The show is not a feminist triumph by any means” is pretty weak praise. It would have been good to see you acknowledge that in your first comment. As for the rest of that paragraph, as I already said in a previous comment, a more accurate depiction of Mormonism and rendering of Brenda “would certainly elevate the conversations we’re able to have about Mormon experience.”
You suggest that Jeb Pyre’s “abuses promoted by the Mormon culture of divinely-supported patriarchy”
Right, I got that’s what you were claiming. What I was asking is this: How do you know Jeb “[swallows] his doubts and his pride for the sake of his family”? How do you know he doesn’t “[continue] to use his voice and exert his authority by insisting that Becca confront the difficult truths that caused him to lose faith in the church, trying to convert Becca to his way of thinking”? What interactions signal that to you? What does he say to Becca that makes that clear? I’m asking you not for empty assertions about what the conclusion represents to you but for evidence supporting your reading.
You could easily settle a debate. Monya and Scott claim that you do not object to all criticism of UtBoH, that you allow for valid criticism of the miniseries. It would be really helpful if you would give an example of criticism of the show you consider valid. If you can do that, I will happily admit I was wrong and apologize.