Surfing Information and Making Waves:
Edward Jay Bell
Jay Bell (1948-2003)
David Clark Knowlton
August 9, 2004
Note: These remarks were prepared by Mormon anthropologist David Knowlton for a Sunstone Symposium session entitled, "Remembering Jay Bell and Helping Preserve His Legacy" (Salt Lake City, 14 August 2004, session 317). A taped version of this session, including this and other speakers, is available through the Sunstone Foundation .
Jay Bell's Memorial Page
Affirmation announces the Jay Bell Fund
Last year, at this time, Jay introduced me to the Sunstone audience, with grace and wit. I had just returned from South America to give my paper and it was a delight to be welcomed home by his words. This year Jay is with us in spirit, rather than in body—with all its punishing meanings if you know Jay. I am in South America and leave this paper to honor him, to thank him, and to recognize his work and importance.
To me Jay was primarily a friend. He was someone who would call and say "hey David. I just found a great book." Or "have you heard about…" His laugh was engaging and enthusiastic, even when he was struggling. One New Year's Eve, some friends, Jay, and I went clubbing to ring in the New Year. It happens that January First is also my birthday. While I was gone from the table for a few minutes Jay called my home phone, with all the noise of the club around him, and had everyone at the table wish me a happy birthday. I was stunned at the thoughtfulness the next afternoon when I picked up my messages.
Jay and I spent hours talking on the phone and saw many movies together. Whenever we would have a dinner at my house, Jay was there with his pies. This last year, his absence has been noticed every time people have gathered at my house. I miss his phone calls and friendship. That is irreplaceable.
But my purpose here is not to eulogize him as a friend, but to speak to Jay the scholar and Jay the gatherer of information.
Jay Bell surfed the curling waves of information. He spent a lot of time in the ocean of life's forgotten details, waiting to catch a wave. The thrill of the perfect story, fact, or archival trove filled him with adrenaline. Before it he would chuckle, as he paddled his archivist's board and felt it lift him to the wave's crest.
Surfers of the world may agree on what a great wave is. They know where they are found: maybe Bell's Beach; Jeffrey's Bay; Mavericks, California; and Vanuatu. But someone who surfs the waves of information has to have an issue or a concern to help them see the waves as they approach. For Jay, the issue was dual and both were personal: Homosexuality and Mormonism.
Both of these areas are the subject of an increasing body of scholarly and popular literature and culture. Jay worked the in-between areas. His research, his writing, and his tabulation of information are useful to scholars of both areas. And they help us understand where these two important groups—Gays and Mormons—cross paths or journey for a while together.
Since this is primarily a Mormon forum, I think it important to note that Jay's work on homosexuality, Gay Mormons, is not just a contribution to Gay studies but an important contribution to Mormon studies.
In this we find the concern of who is and who is not a Mormon. Jay's work stems from the notion that Mormons, like Gays, are a community. People are born Mormon or convert to it, but they stay Mormon their entire lives, whether they are active in the church or not, whether their membership is on the Church rolls or not. This is an issue of indelible identity, a kind if permanence that marks someone as having interest for a scholar as more than an individual. This kind of identity has existence and transcendence beyond the individual but it can never erase the individual with his own name, experience, and story.
While this notion of the transcendence of primordial identities has ideological importance, in Jay's thought it is not the work of an ideologue who makes a political argument and invokes a community for ends of power of one sort or another. Rather it is the idea of a native Mormon well schooled in that ideology who, although his sexuality and intellectuality raised tension with the mainstream of his society, remained strongly identified with the Mormon community as if it were an ethnic group.
Armand Mauss has challenged this notion of Mormon ethnic identity, arguing there is no substance to it, but Jay, and Jay's work, among that of many others exemplify, along with the scholarly arguments of Patricia Limerick, that there is a strong ethnic sense in Mormonism for many Latter-day Saints. This includes the lives of many Gay Mormons whose experience is archived in Jay's chronologies, archives, and writings.
When Jay created his chronology of Mormons and Gays he did so in a way that substantiates the notion of Mormon-ness as a transcendent and trans-temporal identity that is not limited to membership in the formal church. It is something that belongs to people who form a community and talk with each other—like Jay and his cell phone (He maintained contact with a huge list of people through constant phone calls, accessing in the process a wide range of Mormon experience). Instead his work documents the tension between the Church and the Mormon, or even Latter-day Saint, community. In fact his work provides a primary source for understanding one of the major tensions between Church and community of current life. One must grasp this to comprehend the form contemporary Mormon institutions take and how Latter-day Saints build their lives with the conflicts as part of them.
Interestingly, the anthropologist Gilbert Herdt has argued that Gays increasingly form an ethnic group in the United States. Gay identity is primary and is held to be anchored in biology, just as Latter-day Saint ethnicity is classically located in kinship and the family, as Douglas Davies has cogently argued. The wealth of Gay publications, web sites, plays and movies, as well as bars and coffee houses give substance to this notion even as LDS congregations, movies, novels, websites, etc give substance to Mormonism.
Gay studies are an increasingly important area of scholarship and, if nothing else, have challenged the universal notion of sexuality and gender that the Church pushes in the proclamation of the family.
Jay's work contributes to documenting the history of this ethnicity within the Mormon community. At the same time, it contributes to documenting the place of Mormons within the broader Gay community.
Like many people, Jay was excited by the openings for Gay marriage that were brought to North America by the Canadian courts and by the Supreme Court of Massachusetts. He had already followed, and documented with concern, the increasing involvement of Mormon leadership in efforts to prevent and prohibit Gay marriage. Jay had experienced the impact of sharpening of Mormon rhetoric, which he documented, on the Gay issue, at the same time he, and his friends, were affected by this ever harsher language and activity.
Jay also witnessed the growth of a Gay community that came out of the closet both nationally and among the Mormon community, to stand up with pride and claim its humanity and right to exist legitimately, despite the fierce language that attempted to erase it.
Jay was of a generation that tended to be slow in coming out, particularly if they had a strong connection with the LDS Church and its society. Nevertheless he documented changes whereby younger and younger Latter-day Saints are coming out and proudly claiming Gay identity as primary. For many their Mormon-ness retreats into the background, like a bit of historical color, rather than claiming primacy in itself. While many still stay in the closet and resist their sexuality and the calls to acknowledge it as who they are, many, very many others come out. Like others Jay was fascinated with the development of organizations, or anti-organizations as the case may be, for young Latter-day Saints who are Gay.
A different world has been born for Gays. Although there is a backlash, a brutal, vicious, nasty backlash, still Latter-day Saints explore their sexuality and give meaning to it with a very different set of possibilities than were possible when Jay was young. And the future is hopeful. Young people, according to surveys, are very accepting of Gays.
But the world has also changed for the self styled "Orthodox". The family is not the same. Gender is not the same. Sex and sexuality are not the same. The "Orthodox" also have to define themselves in a world where religion, particularly conservative or Fundamentalist religions have new weight and import as a transnational social movement whose holding to so called fundamentals or even so called "revealed truths" stands to many for a need to resist some of the changes brought by globalization and global cultural change.
If religions are the basis of social movements the world over, and if Mormonism has a larger number of faithful outside the United States than within it, Gays also are becoming transnational. In one way there have always been people who preferred romance, intimacy, and sex with people of their own gender. But now their identities are increasingly less influenced by local histories and local cultures, but by the global spread of Gay as culture and identity.
These are the waves of information that Jay surfed. Not only did he ride them in his own life, but he collected them and organized them in a way others could access. He has left a body of work that will be of importance for scholars who wish to comprehend this time of major change in the world, where religion and sexuality have become two of the critical forces of evolution. Jay's archives and writings will also be useful for Latter-day Saints Gay and Straight who need mirrors of other experience to reflect back to them means of comparing and contrasting their own lives to make sense of them.
Information is many things, including a constantly shifting wave. Jay has performed an important act in his work, during the hours he sat before texts and before his computer, barely able to see the scribblings, even with magnification. He has left us resources for understanding.
Personally, though, I shall remember his best as a friend, one of those rare beings who carry your soul in his hands. For his scholarship I admire him and for his friendship I will always remember him and carry his memory in my heart.