Beyond Disappointment and Duplicity:
Finding My Identity as a Post-Modern Mormon Lesbian
First Place, 2004 Affirmation Writing Contest
by Laurie Wood
Many of us grow up Mormon never asking the question, "Who am I," thinking it has already been answered for us. Individual doubt seemed out of place and, well, a weakness. The question--along with the three golden questions--were asked only of others and never directed at oneself with any degree of sincerity. After all, asking too many questions was dangerously threatening. Who we were, along with all of the other important questions, had been previously asked and answered for us. Therefore, our identity was supposedly obvious. Maybe, but not to me. My path--made up of the people I've known and the choices I've made--has been a convoluted and confusing one, but a path not unlike so many others I've run into. Finding my own voice--the voice of a feminist, a lesbian and ultimately a Mormon--and figuring out how it fit in that choir of women's voices around me has been a fascinating--albeit frustrating--journey.
I began consciously thinking about my own voice when, well into my thirties,
I finally discovered the canon of works that make up feminist literature.
Growing up a Mormon in American Fork in the sixties and graduating from
Utah colleges in the mid-seventies, I had missed the women's movement
(or thought the ERA was part of Satan's plan). I'd been exposed to Andelin's
Fascinating Womanhood rather than to the likes of Freidan's
Feminine Mystique. Later, immersed in teaching high school
and living in ultra-conservative Utah County, I'd missed writers such
as Gilliagan , Heilbrun and Butler. Reading them finally, I felt the
wonder of discovering women's voices, familiar voices. But with the
wonder, came sorrow that it had taken me so long to make the discovery.
Decades of pent-up questions, observations and unreleased ravings started
to surface . After discovering other voices I had a little bit of perspective
to begin figuring out the question I hadn't yet been able to consciously
acknowledge: Who was I? What was my voice? When I found it, how would
it sound? What was the voice of a Mormon Post-Modern Lesbian (Mo PoMo
Homo) ? What could I do to find it?
Initially, I suppose, we learn who we are from our families, mostly
from our mothers. (And then spend years and years trying to unlearn
what they taught us.) I was continually puzzled by my mother. If I had
to find a word that best represents her life experience, the word would
be disappointment. Life had disappointed her. Being an adult
meant being disappointed. While I was growing up and Sunday afternoon
boredom drove my mother to reminisce, she'd describe, with incredible
detail, a time when she was really happy: her high school years. She
had then married a pretty, rich boy to save her from college, and there
the stories stopped. When I pressed for details after that, time spent
with my dad for instance, she'd stop, despondency coming back to her
eyes, and say, "No. After that everything goes sour." Even at seven
or eight, I figured out rather quickly that I was part of what went
I guess my mother's lessons about life were seasoned with her disappointments.
An early lesson of hers was that life happened to you. Another
lesson strangely complemented her lack-of-agency lesson: any worthy
validation would come from outside. If I were of value, someone would
let me know. Another's opinion, wisdom and experience were ultimately
what really counted. My accomplishments as a female--and a daughter--were
labeled success or failure by how closely they resembled the (always
male) authority's definitions. Consequently, I thought growing up meant
waiting passively for life to happen, having someone to tell me of my
value, and ultimately being disappointed with whatever happened and
with whatever anyone told me.
My high school years became a time when my mother dreamed of reliving
her glory days. She wanted for me all the parties, dances and dates
that she had such fond memories of. Since it wouldn't have occurred
to her (because it was unthinkable) I'm not sure she noticed
that I wasn't really all that interested in those things. I tried parroting
both her desires and those of my friends. I wanted my mother to approve
of me and I wanted to fit in with my peers. I was a dismal failure at
being the chaste flirt. I learned "chase and be chaste" long before
it appeared on billboards. Social disappointments were greeted with,
"You should have known better than to get your hopes up." God knows
what I might have gotten had I sought out her advice about my social
ineptness and isolation; I couldn't risk either the advice or the condemnation.
Not knowing why I felt so different from my friends--I had years before
I consciously acknowledged by attractions to women--I knew was I was
weird. I kept my feelings to myself and tried to be what my mother--and
the church--thought a daughter should be. I tried to get her to praise
me, I waited for life to happen, and I waited to become my mother.
And so armed with my mother's firm sense of myself--an inept, disappointing failure--I entered BYU and collided with a host of conflicting impressions. So many of my classmates were products of mothers seemingly indistinguishable from mine--we were the "Stepford Children" of Utah County. I had roommates whose sole purpose was to find husbands, and they worked very hard at it. Their classes provided co-ed social hours. The library was a place to discuss parties, dances and dates. They were creating that "happiest time of life" our mothers had described. I, however, wasn't creating these memories. An education and possibly a career, not dates, interested me more than a life of wifedom, so I transferred to the University of Utah. There I met other girls who had different, though untested, hypotheses about creating an identity. Yet without the tools with which to weigh all the possibilities, I struggled against everything that didn't reinforce my church's my culture's (which in Utah is indistinguishable from my church's) and my mother's norms.
Those first years of college produced a sensory overload filled with new world views and conflicting ideologies. I met people--peers and professors--who threatened everything my mother had taught me. For the first time I met girls who hadn't relied on school counselors to tell them to become school teachers, nurses, or secretaries and were actually pursuing careers that matched their interests--law, medicine, and business. A few even had political and religious ideas of their own--ones vastly different from the teaching of their parents and church leaders. I was amazed yet suspicious. Who were these women? They were beautiful, strong and intoxicating, but they were just girls--what did they know? In many ways they were as unsure and experimental as I was. But they helped me realize that maybe my mother didn't necessarily speak for all women after all. Not every woman--Mormon or gentile--was waiting for life to happen; some women actually were agents in their own lives, making things happen. I began to see that all women weren't consumed by their homes and by their marriages. Not everyone was obsessed with my becoming a successful Mormon wife and mother. A little glimmer of hope emerged: I didn't have to be my mother! Now it seems such an obvious insight, but at the time--at 19 or 20--I actually felt the earth move. But if I didn't become my mother, what would I become? Along with the exhilaration came some terror. How could I be a Mormon if I were something different from my mother? I definitely needed more data.
During my final year of college, I had a friend and mentor whose life came closest to what I thought mine could be. Nearly ten years older than I, Sharon was the perfect Mormon wife married in the temple and trying to have kids. But her marriage seemed to have plenty of room for her own development as well as room for others. Her relationship with her husband seemed so unusual and so different from my parents' marriage--they talked and laughed and seemed to be friends. I also noticed one very glaring difference from my mother's life--she had time to call her own and time to play. I hadn't thought that possible in a marriage. Unaware of my physical attraction, I had a huge crush on her, but like my crushes before I never questioned its intensity or meaning. I simply loved her because she was someone whose life I could emulate.
Sharon helped me to examine and re-think my traditional beliefs about
what partnerships could be. She was strong, opinionated, and extremely
articulate, and she was very interested in encouraging me to be the
same. Soon I was listening to and identifying different Mozart sonatas,
reading and critiquing Harold Pinter's plays, and howling with laughter
on the racquetball court. Taking me backpacking for the first time,
she introduced me to the wonders of Southern Utah. She did my laundry
and let me nap on her couch with my head in her lap while she read my
Newsweek magazines. She offered me a thinking woman's ideas
on what I saw as Mormon oppression of women and other church teachings.
As a convert she had (what I, as a lifer, thought) radical, frightening
and considerably attractive interpretations of what a Mormon woman could
accomplish. She offered me criticisms and praises when deserved and
practically cured me of my self-deprecating ways. Whenever I said I
couldn't do something, instead of saying, "Oh no, you can do it," she
agreed with me. Countering my mother's lessons in almost every way,
she showed me how ineffective it was to look to (or to beg from) others
my self esteem. I couldn't count on her to tell me my worth whenever
I asked. I had to figure it out on my own. I determined she was the
kind of woman I could be when I finally grew up.
After I graduated from college and still unsure about my future, Sharon
persuaded me to serve an LDS mission, something that would have never
occurred to me. She thought I would be an excellent missionary. Wanting
to please her more than anything I submitted my paers and for 18 months
in Southern California, without a strong belief in the gospel or in
myself, I struggled to live up to her belief in me. My mission is a
blur of conflicting memories, many of which I have not come to terms
with even today. As is the case with so many missionaries, my companions
were all there for varying reasons--none of which helped me out of my
loneliness, confusion and despair. Terrified that I would lose any sense
of my secular self, I struggled with rules and restrictions. I recoiled
at being addressed as "Sister Wood." Each new area and companion set
off a new pattern of physical illness and depression. Miserable but
too stubborn to admit failure and return early, I marked off days on
the calendar, despaired at Sharon's letters detailing her active life,
and waited for the mission to be over. Consequently I came home with
no stronger sense of self than when I left. When I returned to Utah,
she had a new baby, was busy attending to her marriage, and didn't seem
to be intent on resuming a close friendship. After a few awkward lunches,
her baby always in tow, we drifted apart.
Fifteen years later, after I'd lost track of her, I ran into her at a political debate. Taking one look at me, Sharon said, "We should talk." She told me she'd left her three children and her husband of twenty years and found a life of completeness with a woman. She told me all this in one breath. Stupidly, I received her admission with bewildered silence. When we met later for dinner, she confessed that she had struggled with her intense feelings for me all those years ago. She felt that her two choices had been to tell me of her feelings and hope I would want a lesbian relationship with her or to send me away. In an effort to keep her marriage and church membership intact, she'd chosen to deny her true feelings and to keep the truth from me. To avoid temptation and to benefit the church, she had sent me away. Those choices would change us both forever.
What could I say? Again I stared in bewildered silence. Slowly I realized how much of Sharon I hadn't even known. Back then I had wanted to be just like her. I thought she had it all figured out. I hadn't recognized her as a woman--so much like my own mother--who was censoring her own voice because she was afraid of the truth. Her inability to be honest ironically would eventually teach me a great deal about making my own conscious choices about my potential and identity.
After my mission I resumed my social ineptness. Unconsciously I think
I was looking for God's payoff: sort of a Mormon quid pro quo.
Recognizing I'd been more attracted to women than men, I was convinced
a mission would have "cured" me. I'd done my part and now He needed
to find me an eternal mate. My mission pretty much convinced me I could
do nothing but be a Mormon wife. As embarrassing as it is to have to
admit, finding a partner was part of my motivation to go to graduate
school at BYU. Where better for an RM to find a husband? There, in an
American Literature class, I met Debby and fell in love. I had asked
God to find me someone to love and I apparently I didn't question His
A couple of years into grad school, I was a graduate assistant to a professors whose life seemed attractive to me. A brilliant academic, she was devoted to her books, her love of nature, and her sense of adventure. A non-traditional believing Mormon, she seemed to have forgone marriage and family for a profession. We became friends, and, again, I'd found a woman who knew how to play. Knowing the value of play was so important to me. The role of Mormon women traditionally didn't allow for play. It allowed women to cook, keep house, raise kids and accept church jobs. My professor was twenty years my senior, but she could out-hike me every time. I was dazzled by her physicality as well as her mind. I signed up for every graduate course she taught. She discussed with me my poetry, and I was sure she'd see through the awe-struck poems written for her and about her. I thought my admiration--read: crush--was blatantly obvious. New worlds were opening to me, and I came to think I could be an intelligent single Mormon woman with women friends. Our friendship developed, but something kept her distant. I was confused and didn't believe she was being honest with me. Years later, I once again learned I hadn't seen the whole woman. Possibly because of her fear of losing her position at the university and her church membership, her ability to love anyone--especially the women to whom she was attracted--lay suppressed or at least hidden from view. Like Sharon, my professor seemed to be living a duplicitous life because she cut off who she could be--a woman who loved both women and the church. So far my role models--my mother, Sharon, and my professor--had modeled either disappointment or duplicity. None had created integrated and honest lives. The Mormon women I loved had modeled fragmentation and duplicity, and I followed their lead.
To perform a fragmented and dishonest life, I developed invisibility and soul blindness. As a small child, I actually believed if I couldn't see people, they couldn't see me. I thought if I, pajama-clad with my eyes covered, I was invisible. Now as an adult, I was doing the same thing; I was standing in the middle of my life with my eyes covered. For each different arena of my life, I created pigeonholed personae, each complete with costumes, props, and supporting cast. In every role I played--colleague, daughter, friend, sister, lover, Mormon--I was believable but invisible. Even with Debby, I had created a loving and fulfilling home life that existed entirely in a bell jar. In fact, I was pretty much living out my childhood fantasy of being an excellent "wife." But unlike other wives, I lived in complete isolation, devoid of the privileges of marriage. I couldn't risk letting in any air, exposing our life together to any of my other selves, my other lives; I was even careful not to look too closely myself. I lived lies so much of the time, I quit looking for truths. Eventually I quit looking for anything. Whenever I tried to see all my "selves" as one person, I got glimpses of horrifying fragmentation, like looking into a broken mirror. I couldn't reconcile who I was--an educated Mormon lesbian--with my church, my culture, or my family. I lived many lives, many lies. Eventually I became a woman who simply chose not to see at all. I stayed in this complacent and blind "Mr. Magoo" state for almost twelve years.
And then, restless at forty, I had an awakening. And while it seems
too pat to lay something so transforming at the feet of something so
urbane as a job change, that is precisely how it happened. Leaving teaching
high school English to teach at Utah Valley State College, stripped
away my old supports, and I realized I didn't need to be the same person
I'd been for the last twelve years. I could invent a new image. Or,
and this came to me as a shock, I finally could be the real me. At that
point my critical theory background was pretty minimal. I was still
the essentialist I'd been raised as; I still believed in a sense of
"the real." Shortly after starting my new job, I looked in the mirror
to see if I could see, for once, who I was. All I saw looking back were
other people's ideas of me. I had marketed my socially-acceptable being
so well, I had bought it absolutely. I panicked. Having an identity
crisis at forty seemed so contrived, and I bristled at the idea of being
a cliché. But simply not wanting to be a cliché wasn't effective therapy,
so I was forced to begin a journey of self discovery. Eventually, I
embraced the idea that my life-altering consciousness was not cliché
but archetype and part of a woman's life cycle. I believe that my mind,
probably to avoid madness, was compelled to know itself. It was seeking
wholeness by retrieving all of its many parts. Drained from maintaining
the many, I wanted a chance to try out the power of one. At forty I
started to do life.
I became a vegetarian, wrote poetry again, joined the ACLU Board of
Directors, biked 1,000 miles, crashed my car, nearly got into a fight
with a woman at a Melissa Etheridge concert, started using a planner,
got a tattoo, joined a writing group, stood under Rainbow Bridge, said
I am lesbian aloud, snow-shoed the Wasatch, gained an understanding
of "panic attack," bought a Barbie watch, sea kayaked off Puget Sound,
bought a cell phone, hiked a slot canyon, received love letters from
another woman, got my third piercing, had a water-weenie accident, danced
at a gay bar, saw Angels in America, went into therapy, and
began wearing cowboy boots. Red ones.
At once an adolescent and an emerging woman, I started to live one whole life--with incredible joy. Just as I was constructing this personal sense of my self, I discovered I had to find a social sense of self as well. I had to be more than the perfect "wife." It wasn't enough. But where did I fit? What did it mean to be this emerging feminist lesbian Mormon? I had to acknowledge that my being a woman wasn't the same, didn't mean the same, as simply being female. As a lesbian, I couldn't define myself by culture's definition of "woman." Although I looked and acted (sometimes) like the social convention called "woman," that convention did not define me. If being a woman meant feeling a sense of being outside the male-dominated society, then I was outside the outsiders. If being a woman meant being defined by the number of children I produced, then I was denied even that biological definition. If being a woman meant fighting against patriarchy's unfair treatment, then I was fighting a culture--its women included--whose dogma codified unfair treatment. If being a woman meant riding the tide of political and social equality and respect, then I--embracing all three dangers to the church: lesbian, intellectual, and feminist--faced politically correct and socially acceptable exclusion. I was unable to see how I could fit into a community of women--especially Mormon women--or how my voice could fit into the choir. In my experience, that choir of women's voices would just as soon keep me silent.
But I wasn't about to keep silent or stay invisible. Once awakened, I couldn't go back--as if there were a "back" to go to. I had learned that my emerging identity as a woman would not be validated by my culture's notion of women. By Mormon standards, I was sorely deficient: I was no one's wife. I was no one's mother. By its standards, I was sorely deviant. A lifetime of holding myself up to Utah Mormon standards of achievement had only seen failure. So fortified with my fledgling sense of self-acceptance, I sought openly lesbian friends. I looked to honest women who were accepting of and comfortable with themselves and their lives. I looked to women who were working to heal the deep wounds precipitated by their Mormon upbringing.
Among these women, I could stand against standards where I had a chance of being seen as a success. While ignored in Mormon culture, my twenty year relationship with Debby was heralded as a impressive accomplishment within the lesbian community. Finally seeing myself as a successful partner, I could share our rich and amazing history. My teaching, my poetry, my personal search for spirituality was appreciated and applauded. My politics, my passions and my past were valued by these women. This community celebrated my accomplishments.
The lesbian community helped define me and shape me, I learned that communities are of necessity constantly shifting, and I was selling myself and others short by limiting myself to one community. Lou, a mentor and role model of mine, says she partially defines herself by the communities where she can give something of herself. I came see that kind of thinking, that kind of inclusion, led to belonging to more than just one community. Having found a safe-haven to flaunt my fledgling sense of self, I'd grown stronger and louder surrounded by accepting friends. But if my voice were to grow stronger, I couldn't simply surround myself with complementing voices. I needed diversity and difference. I had to go beyond my own community to try out my new-found voice. Equipped with a more inclusive vision of others--especially women, lesbians and Mormons--I felt a longing to belong to all sorts of communities.
I wish I could include a section in this essay about my feelings
of inclusion in a spiritual Mormon setting. While I have found acceptance
and recognition from many people who embrace Mormonism, I have yet to
conciliate what I see as the institution's active role in demonizing
and discrimination of gays and lesbians. I haven't yet figured out how
to de-compartmentalize my relationship with God and my on-going retreat
from the organization. I haven't found acceptance from a Mormon God,
yet I've found spirituality elsewhere--in nature, in meditation, and
in accepting friends. Newfound confidence tells me not to look to traditional
organized religion for my spiritual fulfilment, but even the greatest
confidence has difficulty bearing the weight of exclusion.
My journey includes an amazing experience. I was having an afternoon of angst, struggling with my relationship with my mother, struggling with my relationship with God, and struggling with my still-new and not-to-be-totally-trusted inner strength. I had talked, cried, prayed, written, and stared into space for hours; I was exhausted and seemingly only sleep would alleviate my dark discouragement. Then I had what I can only describe as a vision. With perfect clarity, I saw a line of women. The closest women were adults, but as I looked more closely, I observed that the women were of all ages--toddlers, girls, women. The women and girls all stood in front of a backdrop, like a police line up, with a line or mark above their heads, indicating their height. Each met the mark set out for her. Each was exactly where she was meant to be. And looking closer, I saw that all the women were stunning, and all the women were me! Laurie at seventeen awkward and insecure. Laurie at nineteen engaged to be married. Sister Wood at 21 in a skirt with a name tag and Book of Mormon. There I was at 24 in love for the first time with a woman and at 40 frightened and incapable of recognizing my own reflection. I understood as I never had before that each of those women--those selves--were all living up to their mark. At that moment I knew that I could cherish and honor all of them. Each and every one of them had made me. I wept for all the times I had been ashamed of them, and I wept for all the times I had blamed them for falling short. Accepting, embracing and celebrating them, I saw my journey from fragmentation to integration and wholeness would result in a complete human.
As my identity strengthens, the boundaries of my community constantly redefine themselves, and I scurry to find more and more connections in assorted settings. My colleagues and students now see someone who is open, honest, and confident that I offer something of value to their lives. And when I come under criticism, they see someone who isn't consumed with doubt. My friends see me as grounded and alive. They make me laugh. Every so often I tell them stories of my journey and of my past insecurities. I like telling those stories. I like speaking of those "other women," honoring them for getting me here.
So, after my incredible journey, I can declare at last that, yes, I
am, finally, singing in the choir. I've added my voice to the choir
of women's voices. Admittedly, in the past, I denied even being
in the choir. Hesitant to sing out, thinking I was off key or adding
an inappropriate alto to a sea of sopranos, I hadn't realized the harmony
created by different voices. Today, however, thanks to all the women
in my past and present, I am adding a strong, loud, confident and diverse
voice to the choir--a voice uniting all the women I've been. Consequently,
because of the amazing trip I've been on, I'm looking forward to even
more extraordinary journeys. I've really just started my life. I currently
have more a comprehensive cause. Now, I anticipate joining an all-encompassing
choir which integrates all--not just women's--voices. I want to add my
voice to the choir of all God's children.