Monday, January 31, 2011

Getting Out There: Wherever Two or More are Gathered

I’ve just come off a great weekend that has provided me with even more experiences that make me profoundly glad that I have come out (to the extent I have) and embraced who I am.  I also want to say yet again how grateful I am for the friends I have made these past three months, who have counseled me, supported me, introduced me to various aspects of the gay world and have just plain loved me.  Although I haven’t been out long enough to truly appreciate what a tremendous blessing my circle of friends are to me and how lucky I am to have them, I do have a general sense of this;  I know I am lucky.  I am grateful. 

On Friday night, I had the privilege of being invited into the home of a wonderful gay couple who were hosting an intimate gathering to pay musical tribute to a friend of theirs who had recently achieved a significant milestone in his professional life.  The program consisted of a number of vocal and piano numbers, each of which had been carefully selected to salute the guest of honor. Though this guest of honor is not gay, almost everyone else who was there is, or else has a very close gay connection.  Additionally, a number of the guests shared an association in the same Protestant church, though most of them, as well as everyone else at the gathering, is either LDS (of some stripe) or has come out of an LDS background.  I am purposely highlighting these facts, i.e., that the gathering was essentially "gay" and non-Mormon, because this bears directly on what I experienced that evening.

After a lovely opening piano number, one of the guests beautifully and tenderly sang I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked, a number that is much more well-known in the Protestant world than the Mormon one.  As I sat there listening, admiring this man’s talent and contemplating the moving lyrics of the song, I came to sense something tangible, palpable; it was something that I recognized:  the presence of the Spirit.

This feeling intensified during the performance of the next number by Kevin Jacobson, a man who is not LDS but is, in fact, a musician who writes and performs contemporary Christian music.  (You can listen to some of his music on his website located here.)  As Kevin sang of finding joy in the love of the Savior in a tender, beautiful performance, I thought about what had transpired in my life in the past few weeks and months and felt a profound sense of gratitude for being where I was at that moment.  I was sitting in a room that was full of love and light, and I was very conscious of the fact that I wouldn’t be there but for the fact that I had come out – as a direct result of President Packer’s infamous remarks at October General Conference.  Later that evening, Kevin, at my request, sang a poignant song he had composed, but has not yet recorded, in response to Packer’s remarks.  By the end of it, I was in tears.  I surely hope Kevin records that song so that I can relive how I felt at that moment. 

A lovely piano solo was next, and this was followed by a duet of The View from Here, the tenderly beautiful song written in 2009 by David Naylor.  David grew up in the Mormon Church, served a mission in Germany and later was a member of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  He was also gay.   In an interview with 2009 Affirmation Conference Chair David Nielson, published here, David talked about his life experiences that had led to the composition of the song:

“I based it on my own thoughts and experiences along my road to authenticity. Most of us know too well the conflicts we felt growing up LDS, always feeling at odds with the establishment, never quite fitting in. In order to truly appreciate the view from where we are, we need to be at peace with who we are and have the strength to live authentically, whatever that may mean ...

“In the mid-90s, before coming to terms with the gay thing, I did everything I could think of to prove I was worthy of God's love. I couldn't get past the idea that God had destroyed two entire cities filled with people JUST LIKE ME. I thought that God must somehow hate me too because of this gay thing inside me! So I went out of my way to be uber-faithful. I know it's silly, but I made all kinds of promises with God. I studied, I prayed, I fasted, I did my home teaching, I attended the temple, in fact my time singing with the Tabernacle Choir was the result of one of those promises. Finally, one night, in an effort to find some solace, I read that infamous chapter in Spencer W. Kimball's “Miracle of Forgiveness” and I was overcome with new wave of shame and revulsion. I did not want to go on. I would just be better off dead! So I knelt by my bed that night and begged God to take my life. I don't know how long I knelt there, but by the time I was finished praying, I was convinced that God would take me during the night. So, I cleaned the house, wrote good-bye letters, wore PJs (so no one would find me in my underwear) and even left the front door open so nobody would have to break down the door when they came in to find me dead.

“When I woke up the next morning, I was still here. What a huge disappointment that was! But a good thing came from all the drama. I learned that God is not going to change me so I'd better start coming to terms with being gay! So when I was trying to come up with lyrics for the song, all I had to do was re-live that crazy, drama-filled night and plenty of ideas zoomed into my head!”

Here are the lyrics to the song:

I remember nights alone,
My heart filled with longing
For a life I could call my own.
Never being true to the light within me
Light that finds a home within my soul.

In my heart, a prayer for life
That might be worth living.
Promises made I couldn’t keep.
Suddenly the dawn of a new day rising,
One that changes everything I see.

And the view from here is colored like a rainbow
Lending light to all who cross my way.
And the view I see fills my heart with love.
Beautiful and clear, the view from here.
Reaching now I take the hands of all who stand beside me;
Standing as one with family;
Thankful for the gift that God has placed within me,
True to the light that shines in me.

Concerning the line about the rainbow, David commented:  “I was afraid it was too cliché and about changed it several times! There was a time when I was so focused on NOT being gay that everything around me —family, friends, events, accomplishments— went completely unnoticed! Everything was essentially black and white. When I finally made the decision to accept myself unconditionally, everything changed. The rainbow, as it turns out, is the perfect metaphor —cliché or not — so I kept the line.”

It is difficult for me to express how privileged I felt, as someone who is so recently out of the closet, to be at that gathering that night and to be so freely proffered these musical offerings, all of which - to one degree or another - represented stories full of pain and heartache as well as re-birth and joy.  I was humbled, I was grateful, but most of all, I was touched throughout the evening with a sense of the Divine presence, of love, of purity, of light, of humanity.

These feelings culminated as I listened to the concluding number, The Impossible Dream, sung beautifully and feelingly by Mark, “accompanied” by David, the guest of honor.  This piece, as it turns out, is a favorite of David’s, and after listening to it, he asked Mark if he wouldn’t mind singing it again.  This time, however, David would “accompany” Mark by signing the words.  The resulting performance, with Mark singing and David signing the words with a tremendous depth of feeling, is something I hope I will never forget.

For me, this evening was about far more than beautiful music.  It was about fellowship, about friendship, about sharing and caring.  But mainly – at least for me – it was about celebrating my gayness in a way that would never have happened in conventional Mormon circles.  And it was about experiencing feelings I had typically associated only with "Mormon" gatherings in a very different environment.  The evening was such a tremendous gift to me, one for which I am profoundly grateful.

After chatting, laughing and sharing stories for an hour or more after the conclusion of the program, a group of us went out to a gay bar, where we saw more friends, talked, danced and had a great time.  In a way, this was the perfect ending to the evening I had just experienced:  there was no dichotomy in my mind between the “spiritual” experience I had had earlier in the evening, and the more earthy experience that concluded my evening.  These were different facets of the same whole, each valid, each worthy of celebration, and that to me is part of what makes being gay so wonderful. 

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Introducing: Gay Gospel Doctrine Class

Welcome, class.  This is a first attempt at an online gay Gospel Doctrine class, one that can be attended in one’s pajamas or, um, boxers if one wishes.  No probs. 

During these past few days, I’ve been thinking a lot about Wes Hempel’s approach to “gay revisionist art” that was discussed in last Tuesday’s post.  He spoke of creating a space through his art where, rather than being vilified and excluded, gays are accepted and celebrated.  In a similar vein, I wondered, at the conclusion of my post, what Mormonism would look like today if gays and lesbians were acknowledged, embraced, valued and loved in their various wards and branches just as they were, rather than rejected and “erased.”

As I pondered over this concept and exchanged some thoughts with a friend, it occurred to me that there are things that we gay Mormons can do to create our own gay Mormon experience, and that one these things might be to try the concept of an online Gay Gospel Doctrine Class, based loosely on the subject of each week’s Gospel Doctrine lesson and presenting it in a way that somehow embraces or addresses one or more aspects of our life as gay men and women.  (For those reading this who may not be members of the LDS Church, Gospel Doctrine is the main Sunday School class for adults that is held each week in every Mormon congregation throughout the world.  The Church produces a manual that contains the subject of each week’s lesson, and each year, a different work of scripture is studied.  This year, the topic of study is the New Testament.)

So, here goes!  I’m going to kick this off by starting with Lesson 5, which addresses Jesus’ encounters with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman at the well (though I’ll be focusing on the latter).  I hope I will have lots of class participation through comments.  I’d like to see this be as interactive as possible.

I’m tentatively planning to publish a post in this series every Sunday and would welcome guest posts.  If anyone wants to volunteer to “teach” an upcoming lesson, please either send me an e-mail at or a Facebook message.  Needless to say, the rules that apply to GD class as taught at church won’t apply here.  You can write whatever you want to, use whatever resources you want to, present any thoughts and ideas that you want to.  Freedom!  If you want to use a Broadway song to illustrate a point in your lesson, go for it!  If you want to use artwork from the “secular” world, terrific!  If you want to use a translation of the Bible other than the King James Version, please do!  This will be Gospel Doctrine lessons for us, by us. 

So, here goes …

And he must needs go through Samaria

Thus wrote John (4:4), commenting on Jesus’ decision to leave Judea and go to Galilee.  Judea is in central Palestine, whereas Galilee is in the north.  In between the two lay Samaria, as illustrated by this map.

Now, most Jews who traveled from Judea to Galilee, or visa versa, crossed the Jordan River and traveled on the east bank of this river so as to be able to avoid travelling through Samaria.  Why?  Because the Jews couldn’t stand the Samaritans. 

From the LDS Bible Dictionary, we read:  “[The word Samaritan] is used to describe the people who inhabited Samaria after the captivity of the northern kingdom of Israel. They were the descendants of (1) foreign colonists placed there by kings of Assyria and Babylonia, and (2) Israelites who escaped at the time of the captivity. The population was therefore partly Israelite and partly gentile. Their religion was also of a mixed character, though they claimed, as worshippers of Jehovah, to have a share in the rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem. This claim not being allowed, they became, as the books of Ezra and Nehemiah show, bitter opponents of the Jews, and started a rival temple of their own on Mount Gerizim. When Nehemiah ejected from Jerusalem a grandson of the high priest Eliashib on account of his marriage with a heathen woman, he took refuge with the Samaritans, taking with him a copy of the Pentateuch, and according to Josephus became high priest at Gerizim.”

The Samaritans received as divine the five books of Moses, but not the historical or prophetic books written by the Jews. During the first century, the religion of the Samaritans was similar to that of the Jews, except that they were more liberal—more kindred spirits of the Sadducees, for example, than the Pharisees. They accepted the Pentateuch, observed certain Jewish feasts, and longed for the coming Messiah.

Jews and Samaritans regarded each other with much more dislike than either of them did the idolatrous nations by which they were surrounded.  Edersheim quotes a Jewish saying: “May I never set eyes on a Samaritan”.  To the orthodox Jew of the time, a Samaritan was more unclean than a Gentile of any other nationality.  The testimony of a Samaritan could not be heard before a Jewish tribunal.  For a Jew to eat food prepared by a Samaritan was at one time regarded by rabbinical authority as an offense as great as that of eating the flesh of swine. The rabbis taught:  “Let no Israelite eat one mouthful of any thing that is a Samaritan’s; for if he eat but a little mouthful, he is as if he ate swine’s flesh”

So, Jesus apparently made a conscious decision to travel through Samaria on his way to Galilee:  “it must needs be.”

For the Jews have no dealings with the Samaritans

As Jesus and his disciples approached Sychar in Samaria, he sent the disciples into the city to buy food.  This in itself was contrary to Jewish law and custom and must have made an impression upon the disciples.

Jesus, meanwhile, proceeded to Jacob’s well, near Sychar, to rest.  While there, a lone woman approached the well to draw water, whereupon Jesus asked her for a drink.  To do so was a flagrant violation of Jewish law and custom, as there was a strong prohibition on public discourse between men and women.  A Hebrew man did not talk with women in the street — not even with his mother, sister, daughter or wife, and according to the most liberal view of Deuteronomy 24:1, a Hebrew husband could divorce his wife if she was found “familiarly talking with men.”

So, before even getting into the story of the “woman at the well,” we find that Jesus has defied Jewish custom and law in at least three ways:  (i) by travelling through Samaria instead of around it; (ii) by sending his disciples to buy food prepared by Samaritans; and (iii) by initiating a conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well.

At this point, we could pause to ask several questions, such as the following: 

- What does this defiance of law and custom reveal about Jesus?

- Who are some “Samaritans” in today’s world?

- What are some metaphorical Samarias?

Our Gay Samaria

Among other possible answers to this last question, I would like to suggest that we gay Mormons live in a metaphorical Samaria.  We are latter-day Samaritans who are considered “unclean” by most conventional Mormons, and most members of the Church would rather travel around us than be forced to associate with us.  But just as was the case with the Biblical Samaritans, Jesus is not afraid to come into our midst, even if it means defying law and custom; indeed, He wants to come; it is His mission to do so.  He is unconcerned with convention if it prevents Him from reaching out to those who need His ministrations.

He comes to us, even when we don’t expect Him

      9 The Samaritan woman said to Him, How is it that You, being a Jew, ask me, a Samaritan [and a] woman, for a drink?--For the Jews have nothing to do with the Samaritans--
    10 Jesus answered her, If you had only known and had recognized God's gift and Who this is that is saying to you, Give Me a drink, you would have asked Him [instead] and He would have given you living water.*

            *Biblical passages taken from the Amplified Bible unless otherwise indicated.

As I read this passage, I was struck with this thought:  The Samaritan woman did not expect Jesus to talk to her for at least two reasons, i.e., because she was a woman and because she was a Samaritan. Yet he did so.  In like manner, how many times have many of us felt that God could not possibly accept us as we are – gay – only to discover, when we finally allow ourselves to actually ask the question, that God accepts us as we are.  If we had only known and had asked, “He would have given [us] living water.”

Go, Call Your Husband

After an initial exchange with the woman, Jesus decides to take their conversation to another level.  He knows the woman is a “sinner.”  But He does not denounce her; even in demonstrating his divine gift of discernment, He does not mention her “sin”, but simply asks her to do something, knowing that this will bring the issue to the surface:

16  At this, Jesus said to her, Go, call your husband and come back here.
17 The woman answered, I have no husband. Jesus said to her, You have spoken truly in saying, I have no husband.
18  For you have had five husbands, and the man you are now living with is not your husband. In this you have spoken truly.
19  The woman said to Him, Sir, I see and understand that You are a prophet.

Jesus’ apparent goal was achieved.  He did not denounce her or point out her “sin” in order to berate or chastise her; rather, He exhibited his God-like power of discernment so that this “sinner” could in turn discern that He was in fact the Messiah.  In fact, in this entire account, Jesus at no point condemns the woman.  He proclaims; she responds. 

25  The woman said to Him, I know that Messiah is coming, He Who is called the Christ (the Anointed One); and when He arrives, He will tell us everything we need to know and make it clear to us.
26  Jesus said to her, I Who now speak with you am He.
28  Then the woman left her water jar and went away to the town. And she began telling the people,
29  Come, see a Man Who has told me everything that I ever did! Can this be [is not this] the Christ? [Must not this be the Messiah, the Anointed One?]

Is there not a lesson in this for us?  Christ does not seek to condemn us; He seeks to reveal Himself to us.  He proclaims; we respond.

Coming Out as the Messiah

Another way in which this whole story of the woman at the well is amazing is that Jesus chose to “come out” as the Messiah in Samaria to a Samaritan woman.  I like the following commentary here by April O’Flaherty: 

“I could not help but notice that Jesus spoke to this woman not as an underling or a servant, but as another human being, of equal value to men and Jews. He could have, and by all cultural rights should have, treated her with disdain or simply ignored her altogether. He chose not to do either, but instead went the proverbial extra mile to meet with her at the well where He made His first real claim to be Messiah - to a woman. A Samaritan woman. A Samaritan woman with a rather sordid past and present.

“Is this not amazing? Is it not radical? It was a staggering a thing for the Jewish Rabbi to treat a woman as though she were worthy of such incredible compassion and to share with her an important spiritual message. This point is driven home by the reaction of Jesus' disciples when they return and find Him engaged in such a serious spiritual discussion with "the woman." [Verse 27: Just then His disciples came and they wondered (were surprised, astonished) to find Him talking with a woman [a married woman]. However, not one of them asked Him, What are You inquiring about? or What do You want? or, Why do You speak with her?] …

“As I read the story of the Samaritan Woman, I found myself wondering what it was that drew Jesus to her. He sought her out; this was not a case of some lost soul chasing after Jesus for help or forgiveness. He sat at Jacob's Well and waited for her to come for water, knowing that she would. Her human neighbors did not want to be seen near her, but the Son of God went out of his way (literally) to spend time with her."

The concept of this being the first time that Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Messiah was new to me.  I had not previously made this connection.  But beyond that, I don't think I've every really imagined what it must have been like for him to carry that secret within him, not telling anyone (of which we have record) until that day in Samaria, and even then keeping that knowledge confined to only a few people.  We of all people know what it is like to carry a huge secret about ourselves, and we can therefore relate - albeit in a small, human, imperfect way - to what it felt like to the Savior to be honest and open with the Samaritan woman about who he was.

They besought him that He would tarry

As it turned out, after Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well, she ran and told her fellow villagers about Jesus.  Many of the Samaritans believed on him, and they “besought him that he would tarry with them: and he abode there two days, and many more believed.”  I love that word “besought” which is the past tense of the word “beseech.” The Samaritans, in effect, pleaded for Jesus to stay with and teach them. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have a record of what was taught during those two days. Jesus had told his disciples while still sitting at Jacob’s Well that the “field was white, ready to be harvested” (John 4:35), and indeed such was the case among this mongrel group of people whom Jesus’ own people despised.  Many people believed on Jesus and later, in the Book of Acts, we learn that the early apostles experienced great success in spreading the Gospel among the villages of Samaria.

Tender Mercies

In conclusion, I would like to share a song called “Tender Mercies,” performed by Shane Jackman. I had hoped to present a slide show, but my Windows Movie Maker isn't working the way it should.  I also apologize for the audio quality.  Nevertheless, and despite of these drawbacks, I wanted to include this song because I feel it captures the essence of today’s lesson – of Jesus coming to us in our Samarias, revealing Himself and offering living water.  

I hope you enjoyed the “lesson” and that you will share your comments.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

An Expression of the Divine

The title of this post comes from a statement written by artist and writer Wes Hempel, about whom I wrote a few days ago.  He had used this phrase in a discussion of President Boyd K. Packer’s recent General Conference remarks: “If homosexuality is not a choice but is instead intrinsic, the inescapable conclusion is that homosexuality is not ‘impure’ or ‘unnatural.’  Rather, it must be just another aspect of God’s creation ... [which] alongside heterosexuality … must be an expression of the divine.” 

I would like to use Wes’ words to frame an articulation of some thoughts I have had since publishing my guest post last Saturday on The Narrow Gate, entitled Exodus: A Gay Man’s Journey out of Marriage and Orthodox Mormonism.  Not surprisingly, my frank comments concerning my current attitude toward the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (which, for the benefit of non-Mormons who may read this, is often referred to as the Mormon Church, and which I will hereafter simply refer to as the “Church”) generated some responses.  As a clarification and amplification of what I wrote last week, I have prepared this post.

I should first of all say that I was not born into the Church.  I encountered Mormonism shortly after I graduated from college at a time when I was searching for meaning and direction in my life.  I had been raised in the Catholic Church, but had joined a mainline Protestant church when a senior in high school. Later, I had a brief but satisfying affair with the Episcopal Church.  By the time I met the missionaries, I was flirting with going back to the Catholic Church.

In college, I took a number of religion and philosophy courses which both challenged and enriched the belief structure I had been raised with and which I had later added to and modified.  I guess you could say that I was somewhat unusual for someone my age, in that I had devoted a lot of thought, time and effort to the study of organized religion in an effort to find my place in the world.

I feel that this belief structure prepared me, when I was introduced to Mormonism, to be able to recognize and embrace what I considered at the time to be a number of sublime doctrines, unlike anything I had theretofore heard.  These included the following:

The eternal nature of man.  Unlike any other religion or belief system, Mormonism taught that each human being is an eternal person, that before being clothed in a mortal body, my spirit had existed in a “pre-existent” state and that, furthermore, my spirit had in that state been clothed in a spiritual body.  "All spirit is matter,” wrote the Prophet Joseph Smith, “but it is more fine or pure, and can only be discerned by purer eyes … This spirit element has always existed; it is co-eternal with God.”  Furthermore, Mormonism taught that, prior to being organized by God into my spirit body, the “essence” that is me existed as intelligence.  “We know,” wrote Joseph Fielding Smith, “that there is something called intelligence which always existed. It is the real eternal part of man, which was not created nor made. This intelligence combined with the spirit constitutes a spiritual identity or individual.”

The godlike nature of man.  Closely connected with the Mormon teaching that we are spirit children of God is the belief that, because of this heritage, we possess attributes of God within our very spirits.  “Our spirit birth gave us godlike capabilities,” wrote President Lorenzo Snow. “We were born in the image of God our Father; He begot us like unto Himself. There is the nature of deity in the composition of our spiritual organization; in our spiritual birth our Father transmitted to us the capabilities, powers and faculties which He Himself possessed -- as much so as the child on its mother's bosom possesses, although in an undeveloped state, the faculties, powers, and susceptibilities of its parent.”

The dual nature of mortal man.  Mormonism also simply cut through the Gordian knot when it came to the age-old debate among philosophers as to the true nature of man:  was the body merely a corrupting force of our “true” selves, our “spirit”, and thus something to be despised?  No, answered Mormonism.  We were sent here to this earth so that our spirits could be clothed in a mortal body which the spirit would, during the resurrection, reclaim and which would then be made immortal and glorified to a degree that would bring each of us eternal happiness and joy.

The purpose of life.  Far from proclaiming mortality to be a vale of tears, Mormon scripture shouted the truth that “Adam fell that men might be, and men are that they might have joy”! (Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 2:29)

The destiny of man.  Mormonism also rejected the false dichotomy of heaven vs. hell.  In a blaze of light and revelation, Joseph Smith’s vision of the degrees of glory, an account of which appears in Section 76 of the Doctrine and Covenants (Mormon scripture), consigned the traditional Christian view of heaven and hell to the dustbin of history.  Except for “sons of perdition” (which I will not address), all will be resurrected and eventually inherit a degree of glory in the eternities that is commensurate with and designed to give ultimate joy to each of God’s children. 

These doctrines lie at the heart of what Mormons alternately call “The Restoration”, the “Gospel” or the “Restored Gospel.” Each term refers to truths that are eternal but which, Mormons believe, had been lost for centuries due to apostasy within the Christian world.  These doctrines, among others, are what have led thousands, including myself, to join the Church.  They are transcendent, resplendent, sublime. 

I think it could be said that these concepts should rightfully earn Joseph Smith a place among the great thinkers of the western tradition. This, however, has not happened.  And, in point of fact, these sublime doctrines are given only passing reference in the Church today.  To the extent they are considered or referred to, whether “in the trenches” (in ward sacrament meetings or Sunday School lessons) or from the pulpit of General Conference, they typically serve as backdrop to what in my view has become the all-important, all-consuming Doctrine of today’s Church:  The Family. 

The Church’s emphasis on “the Family” colors and drives every activity in and aspect of the Church, from Family Home Evening to Proposition 8.  It is this emphasis that, I submit, has led to the Church’s historically harsh position with respect to homosexuality and its involvement with several initiatives to fight gay marriage. 

I believe it is also this emphasis, coupled with the Church’s (commendable) emphasis on meeting the temporal needs of God’s children through practical service and humanitarian work, along with its corporate approach to missionary work and temple “work”, that has led to the “pedestrian-ization” of the Gospel, particularly as the Church continues to seek to be accepted into the North American mainstream.  (I hasten to point out that the Church does much good in the world through its humanitarian outreach, and I am not critical of this – not at all.  What I do lament, however, is that the great transcendent doctrines of the restoration have become lost and given short shrift in the process.)

Even though I have become disaffected with orthodox Mormonism and the mainstream church, I still believe in the doctrines I have described above.  I still believe that these doctrines are like rich veins of precious philosophical ore, waiting to be explored and mined.  I feel this is particularly true with respect to how these doctrines relate to the concept of homosexuality. 

I don’t pretend to be a philosopher or theologian or scriptorian.  But I know that there are great minds out there in the ranks of Church members, particularly in academia.  Who knows what they might produce in the way of thought-provoking and mind-expanding literature if some of these persons directed their intellect and spiritual insight toward the subject of homosexuality in light of these transcendent doctrines? 

For example, I’d like to issue a challenge to some great Mormon philosophers (that’s not an oxy-mormon is it?) to consider this question:  If one is born gay (which I very definitely believe is the case), and if one accepts the premise that homosexuality is not some sort of biological abnormality such as Down Syndrome but rather a reflection of one’s pre-mortal identity (which I believe), then what implications do these postulations have concerning the nature of God, a gay pre-mortal identity (and how such an identity was acquired) and (perhaps most importantly) a post-mortal gay identity?  Now, there would be many Mormons who would say, “The Lord hasn’t revealed anything about that.”  To which I would say, “Does that mean we can’t or shouldn’t even think about it and write about it.”  (Obviously, for me, the answer to that question is a resounding NO.)

For my part, intellectual and spiritual pygmy that I am, until I receive further light and knowledge on the matter, I wish to simply adopt Wes Hempel’s statement as an expression of my own personal creed:  I was born gay, and this is not only a part of my eternal identity, but also an expression of the Divine.  In this regard, I also wish to adopt these plain and direct sentiments of Alice Walker as my own because, to me, they express plain, common sense:

“I am an expression of the divine, just like a peach is, just like a fish is. I have a right to be this way...I can't apologize for that, nor can I change it, nor do I want to... We will never have to be other than who we are in order to be successful...We realize that we are - as ourselves - unlimited and our experiences valid. It is for the rest of the world to recognize this, if they choose.”

Friday, January 28, 2011

On Authenticity

Each of us possesses a creative self.
Claiming that is a transformational art.
When you begin to act on your creativity, what you find inside may be more valuable than what you produce for the external world. The ultimate creative act is to express what is most authentic and individual about you.

~ Eileen M. Clegg

Everything will line up perfectly when knowing and living the truth becomes more important than looking good.

~ Alan Cohen

Always be a first-rate version of yourself instead of a second-rate version of someone else.

~ Judy Garland

When we lose the right to be different, we lose the privilege to be free.

~ Charles Evans Hughes

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.
Don’t be trapped by dogma –
which is living with the results of other people’s thinking.
Don’t let the noise of others' opinions
drown out your own inner voice. And most important,
have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.
They somehow already know
what you truly want to become.
Everything else is secondary.

~ Steve Jobs

The most common form of despair
is not being who you are…

~ Søren Kierkegaard

Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born.  And what is it that reason demands of him?
Something very easy –
that he live in accordance with his own nature.

~ Seneca

We are constantly invited to be who we are.

~ Henry David Thoreau


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Trembling Before G-d: Secrets of the Soul

Trembling Before G-d is a documentary about gay Orthodox Jews attempting to reconcile their sexuality with their faith.  The parallels between the Orthodox Jewish experience and the Mormon experience are striking, and I would recommend that every gay Mormon see this film.  It speaks directly to the types of conflicts that many gay and lesbian Mormons – wherever they may be on the spectrum of “activity” and/or belief – have experienced and do experience.

(Note: This is the first of what I contemplate will be a regular feature on my blog, i.e., a movie review of a film that explores issues relating to homosexuality and/or Mormonism and/or Life.  I know reviews will be available elsewhere with respect to the films I discuss.  What I hope to add is a more in-depth exploration of issues that are of unique relevance to those who peruse this blog.)

The film follows the lives of several gay and lesbian Orthodox Jews and includes interviews with rabbis and psychotherapists about Orthodox attitudes towards homosexuality.  It won several awards, including the Teddy Award for Best Documentary Film at the 2001 Berlin Film Festival, as well as Best Documentary at the 2001 Chicago International Film Festival and the 2003 GLAAD Media Awards.  It was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize at the 2001 Sundance Film Festival and a Grand Jury Award for Outstanding Documentary Feature at the 2001 L.A. Outfest.

The director of the film, Sandi Simcha DuBowski, is gay and came from a Conservative Jewish background.  He became interested at age 24 in the subject of homosexuality within Orthodox Jewish communities and spent the next five years of his life meeting hundreds of homosexual Jews in several countries around the world.  Only a few of these persons, however, agreed to be filmed due to fears of being ostracized.

“Sometimes you choose films,” DuBowski wrote, “[and] sometimes films choose you. I began “Trembling Before G-d” out of curiosity, a desire to explore the Orthodox world. I do not think I ever anticipated that such intense and challenging six years would follow and that the film would set me on a path of spiritual awakening and greater religious observance … I spent the next five years criss-crossing the globe even just trying to locate people and spent thousands of hours becoming part of the simchas (joys) and pain of the incredible Orthodox and formerly Orthodox gays and lesbians I had the privilege of meeting and sharing my life.

“[The effort to find and interview Orthodox gays] took incredible effort - dozens of screenings in living rooms, innumerable flyers, newspaper ads, TV/print coverage, word-of-mouth, email forwarding, non-stop networking in person and over the Internet. As I met more and more Hasidic and Orthodox gays and lesbians, some thrown out of yeshivas for being gay, others forced into heterosexual marriages, a number disowned and abandoned by their families, it became clear that my level of responsibility and accountability to this deeply hidden community had to be paramount. It was clear that this film could be a vehicle not just of personal exploration, but a powerful catalyst for the birth of a community that would gain mass public voice for the first time ...”

The film weaves its story around a dozen or so gay Jews, rabbis and Jewish psychologists. Some of these are:

David.  One of the main gay “characters” is David, an observant Orthodox Jewish doctor from Los Angeles who has spent a decade trying to reconcile his homosexuality with Judaism.  On the advice of a respected rabbi, he went to therapy and complied with numerous bizarre forms of treatment, including wearing a rubber band around his wrist and flicking it every time he had a “undesirable” thought about a man.  He was told he could change, and he initially believed it.  Finally, however, he gave up and accepted the fact that he would never change. 

David could not, however, reconcile his deep Orthodox faith and his homosexuality with Orthodox Jewish law as interpreted and enforced by rabbis.  “I don’t want to be a less-than Jew because I’m gay,” he says.  One of the most poignant moments in the film is when he re-visits the rabbi to whom he first came out 20 years previously and is told he must live a life of celibacy.  David cries as he sits across the table from the rabbi for whom he has had tremendous respect.  Later, he affirms, “I want to know that I can have a relationship Hashem completely, including this [gay] part of my being.”  Then, wistfully, “I am tremendously hopeful [that things will change].  Otherwise, why hang on to Orthodoxy?  Why not chuck the whole thing.”  (Is this resonating with anyone?)

Malka and Leah.  "Malka" and "Leah" are two observant Orthodox lesbians who have lived together for ten years.  They speak frankly about their lives and discuss, among other things, their fears that they may not end up in heaven together.  Malka’s family rejected her outright when she came out to them; but her father, who is a rabbi, was told by another rabbi that he could not turn his back on his daughter.  As a result, Malka’s father and mother make perfunctory phone calls to their daughter, which always has the effect of reducing Malka to tears because she knows they are doing it to fulfill their own sense of duty, rather than out of love for her.

Shlomo Ashkenazy is a gay psychotherapist whose comments are featured periodically throughout the film.  “The sad truth,” he states toward the beginning of the film, “is that many Orthodox gay people are badly damaged.  They’ve suffered so many years of torment, self-doubt and depression and low self-esteem.  How can you [as a gay Orthodox Jew] make a case for asking people to accept you when you don’t accept yourself?” 

Mark.  Mark is the son of an ultra-orthodox rabbi in England.  He started to come out when he was 15 and was sent to Israel by his parents because “there are no homosexuals in Israel.”  “Big mistake!” comments Mark, as that is when and where he came completely out.  He was thrown out of seven yeshivas (religious schools) for homosexual activity across England and Israel, contracted AIDS and lost, for a time, his desire to live his Orthodox faith.  As he is interviewed in the documentary, however, we see him regain this desire. 

At one point in the film, Mark asks plaintively, “Why did G-d give me homosexuality?” He later states, “I miss being with people who have fear of Hashem [God] … I’ve lost all my Torah, and I’ve got to seek it again.”  Toward the end of the film, he prepares to celebrate Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles, with other gay Jewish men.  Clearly ill, he becomes philosophical as he contemplates his existence:  “[Hashem] has given me a soul … Just being a Jew is such a nice present to receive … Just being Jewish.”

Naomi Mark is another therapist interviewed for the documentary.  Early in the film, she laments that by giving gay Orthodox kids a message that they either must conform or leave, “we lose them.  Either they cease to be Orthodox, or we lose them by suicide, or they lose their soul; they live a lie that distorts them internally.”  (Sound familiar?)  Toward the end of the film, as she reflects on homosexuality, Orthodoxy and on how little we actually know about the purpose of life and Heshiva’s design, she concludes by saying, “There’s more to this than we could ever possibly understand.”

Steve Greenberg is reportedly the first openly gay Orthodox rabbi in the United States and was interviewed for the film.  He speaks of meeting with parents of children who have come out and saying to them, “There are other ways to read the Torah [than those to which we are accustomed].  Let’s learn.”  In another segment, Greenberg speaks of gay relationships and recites Hashem’s observation that it is not good for man to be alone.  “Human loneliness is the first problem,” Greenberg comments.  “It was the first fly in the ointment of creation.”  [I have to respect a religion that actually embraces the great philosophical questions of life!]  Speaking of his own (relatively recent) partnership, Greenberg states almost euphorically that, because of this relationship, “I am finally seeing myself more “real-ly” than I ever have before.

Toward the end of the film, in discussing the “traditional” Orthodox approach to homosexuality, Greenberg advances what seems to me to be a classic (but definitely un-Orthodox) approach to the traditional Judeo-Christian attitude towards being gay:  “The demonstration that human beings can influence even Hashem is all over the Torah. G-d wishes to learn from his conversations with human beings.  That’s what the covenant is all about!  The whole engagement is not bout G-d’s control, but about G-d’s love!  … It’s not Judaism if it’s not responsive to the human condition.”  Wow!  To quote Joseph Smith, “This is good doctrine. It tastes good.”

Israel.  Israel is a 58-year-old New Yorker who decided he couldn't be gay and Orthodox, and turned his back on his religion many years before, though not before his family forced him into electroshock therapy to try to cure him. “How can you be queer and Orthodox at the same time,” he asks.  “I see a logical contradiction there.  It can’t be.  In order to retain my sanity and selfhood, I had to leave.  I had to throw everything away [even though] … my whole spirit comes out of that background.” 

We watch Israel as he goes into the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods of New York.  At one point, he recites from memory the prayer his father – from whom he has been estranged for over 25 years – used to sing on the Shabbat.  At another point, he gives vent to the deep-seated anger he feels at being cast out of a community that believes that it is the custodian of the true Torah.  “I know how to live my faith!” he angrily declares with raised fist, asserting that the God that his father and those like him worship (and who have condemned and excluded gays) is not the God that redeemed Israel out of Egypt.

There are other persons interviewed in the film: gays, rabbis and therapists. There are many other memorable and thought-provoking comments that resonated with me as I watched the documentary.  But perhaps the aspect of the film that engaged me the most was the tremendous respect and reverence, shared by all those who were interviewed, for and toward not only the awful mystery and majesty of Hashem – which infuses every aspect of Orthodox life – but also for the mystery of this thing that is called homosexuality.  This respect for the awe-full-ness of God and for the large questions of life is an aspect of Judaism that has always appealed to me.

I will conclude this little essay with comments from a real movie reviewer, Jim Fouratt, who reviewed the film for LGNY:  “I frankly had little interest in learning why gays and lesbians wanted to stay within one of the most specifically homophobic religious traditions, and I went to see it out of duty rather than desire. I was wrong. The film is about the longing for a relationship with G-D and an unwillingness to let go of the rituals of union with G-D and community … Artistic values alone would merit recommending this film … The journey, the closet, the fear, the rapture are what the film documents. No easy answers are given. In the best tradition of documentaries, the film places the questions right in the lap of the viewer.”

Blessed are you, Hashem, Our G-d
King of the Universe
Knower of Secrets
~ Jewish Prayer