From the Pulpit
Mormon & Gay? Creating Our Own Category
Dr. Don Johnson
1988 Affirmation Conference
By Dr. Don Johnson
The kind of things I'd like to talk to you about are drawing heavily on my Mormon background and what it took for me to go through the years, pull things together, understand, make sense, deal with being a therapist, and deal with trying to help clients who came in to me who said that they wanted to change, go through the process of supposed change, watching the dismal failure of that, trying to accept my own identity in the process, eventually deal with who I was and try to fit together the pieces of a universe that made no sense. I'm going to be sharing part of that intellectual process with you today.
I'd like to start with a quote from the British physicist and philosopher, L. L. White. The first time I read it, I was amazed at how much it related to my experience as a gay Mormon. The simple quote is: Thought is born of failure. I remember I looked at it and thought, "Wow." It hit me that when our own actions are satisfying, when everything fits, there's nothing left to struggle with, there's nothing left to nag us, and make us fit the pieces of the universe together, if it all works, if we just follow the plan, we're OK, there's no problem. It's only when it doesn't work that you have to stop, contemplate, reflect, try to make sense out of a system that doesn't make any sense to you.
White went on to say, "To think is to confess a lack of adjustment that we must stop to consider. Only when the human organism fails to achieve an adequate response to its situation is there material for the processes of thought and the greater the failure the more searching they become." It hit me that we could start looking at some of the experiences we've had as gay and lesbian people in a whole new framework. We've been given a wonderful gift of some fantastic failures. When I read it I thought of two massive failures I've had in my life. First of all, I failed at being heterosexual. And then I failed at being Christian and Mormon as I understood it at that moment. Now, when those failures were going on, they were heavy-duty stuff, and I was not very grateful for them at the time. I couldn't make sense out of them, I didn't want them. In hindsight, I see them as wonderful, wonderful gifts. I'm immensely grateful for those two failures. They have, if nothing else, made me think, put my own world together.
Both in and out of the church the idea of freedom, freedom of choice, individual responsibility, is one that Western society, American society and Mormon culture talks about as though it's a wonderful thing. My experience is, however, as a shrink, that we do just about anything on earth to avoid that true kind of freedom. Freedom is a terrifying event. Very few of us want the responsibility to take over our own lives and have the consequences of freedom. We like the idea, but the consequences of freedom is difficult for most of us, and my experience both as a human being and as a therapist is that most of us don't want, avoid, refuse that freedom. We're always looking for some system to simply give us the rules that we can follow and then and we'll be OK. If someone will just tell me the ten steps, I'll do it no matter how hard it is. I see this in therapy all the time. People will come in and say, "Could we go do an encounter weekend? I'll give you lots of money if I can get this over in 48 hours." Or, "What's the magic formula, what is it I have to do to be healthy, to be well, to be sane?" They hate it when I say, "My experience over the years is that change is pretty mundane, it's a lot of little tedious steps, there are no eureka experiences except a few insights, and after you have the insights you're still stuck with the same behavior pattern you had before, and the insights don't do anything to change that behavior pattern. Changing your life is difficult, it's long, it's going to take a while, it's going to take a lot of work, and there's nothing very dramatic about it."
Students come in to me and say, "I'm not motivated to study." And I hear the magic request coming, "So get me motivated." I've learned to counter that right off, "Of course you're not motivated to study. Studying's dull. Why would you be motivated? It's a pain in the butt." And they look at me like, "Wait a minute, we're supposed to change my character here." I say, "No, we're going to change your study habits, and it's no fun. You're not going to like this, there's nothing dramatic about it. It means making lots of tiny choices to get a 4.0 GPA." And that's all there is to it. It's difficult. It's tedious. It's not a eureka experience.
I'd like to come back to the theme of freedom for a moment. Again, while we talk about freedom a lot, we're always looking for somebody to give us the answers and the path, and we avoid it and don't want the responsibility of freedom. I want to suggest that along with our failures at being heterosexuals and being good Mormons or good Christians as we thought we understood it once, there's a wonderful gift and a blessing that comes with that too. That is as we had to deal with freedom, we got thrust out of the system. The answers didn't fit for us, the path didn't fit for us. When we did everything we were supposed to do, it still didn't fit. The simple beliefs, the simple answers of following a simple line, thrust us outside of the system. In that way, whether we wanted to or not, we had to deal with freedom. We call it liberation. We call it learning to love ourselves, overcoming our homophobia. But you can think of it in a different way. That is, we had the wonderful gift of being forced to deal with freedom. No support, no system.
I have a real close friend who talks about the gay and lesbian community being on the cutting edge of the future. I absolutely believe this. And it's not because we're intrinsically better because built into our biology is something different. It's that because of our liberation process we've been pushed outside of the system, pushed outside of the institution, and we have had to come to terms, individually and privately, with what it means to be free and to be responsible for one's own direction and choices in life. The inevitable consequences of that include the fact that you have to put the world together in a new way. If you think about it, most of the visionaries are people who were pushed outside of the systems. The Einsteins of the world did not fit in a simple, natural, flowing, easy way. Their thought was born of failure. And because of that, they managed to put the world together in a new way.
I'm always hit by the fact that many primal cultures have been very wise about us. When we've been born into the system, they've said, "Oh, here are the special ones. We'll make them the shamans, the magical ones, because something very wonderful is happening here." They didn't try to fit us into a system. I don't think I've ever given a talk without reference to Hans Christian Andersen's image of the Ugly Duckling. With Andersen being gay, that being the metaphor for the coming out experience, of what it's like to grow up in a duck's world and learn all the rules about being a happy duck, trying your damnedest to be a good duck, and it just doesn't work. When you initially discover that you're a swan, the first image isn't that it's beautiful. It's just different. You look in the water and you realise you're never going to be what it was you thought you were supposed to be. It usually takes finding other healthy swans to discover how gorgeous the swans really are. And that's part of what's happening here, it's part of community. That's why it's so important that we find each other.
There's a step after that in our freedom too. We finally need to leave the flock of swans too, because that's a new entrapment if you're not careful. A brand new rule system, dress code included, about what it will take to be a happy person.
And there's one last step of freedom that is potentially ours and that is using the experience of liberation to step out and on our own find our own individuation, our own richness that's inside of each of us, eventually group with a few other people, but the potential is there to be the visionaries. We miss it. We're just fresh and new enough as a community, struggling enough with our homophobia that we're looking at the ground when the crown is above our heads, still muckraking while there's a golden crown right above us. Rather than in the long run feeling very sorrowful about the immense pain we've gone through in our born-again process, we should start to see it as a wonderful blessing.
I was giving a talk a while back in a Lutheran Church, to an adult Sunday School class. There was one woman, when I finished the talk, who raised her hand and asked, "What I want to know is would you choose for one of your children to be homosexual? You've said you've got kids, what would you choose?" I was about ready to give my classic answer to that one when I do public speaking, which is, "Well, I'd want my son or daughter simply to be happy and feel good about whatever nature had put into the system." Before I could get that out, she said "You're probably going to say some crap like you want them to be happy however they are. That's not my question. My question is, Would you choose it?" A few things she'd said made me aware already that she had children. I looked at her and said, "Your kids are going to have to head off into the world. They're not going to have you around to protect them all the time. You know how tough the world is. Would you be a good parent if you protected them from ever having to deal with any conflict, any pain, any sorrow, anything not working in their life, knowing that sooner or later they've got to leave you?" She answered, "No." I said, "In fact, you'd know that by them going through the trials and problems of skinned knees, and broken hearts through love affairs that didn't work, and failures in achievement and not having things work in your life, will potentially be one of the things that will toughen them to be able to survive in an essentially hostile world." She agreed. I said, "I don't have the wisdom to know which of the tough things I'd protect my kinds from, and ultimately which will be the blessings for them and which will be stumbling stones, but believe me I would not pull out of their path the wonderful potential struggle of dealing with a misfit in terms of sexual identity. If I had to choose, I'd flip a coin, and wherever it landed that would be the sexual orientation of my son or my daughter. I'd be a little disappointed if it came down heterosexual because they're going to miss a crack at a great blessing if that's what happens to them in that process."
There's another image I'd like to pull in for just a moment. Back when I was trying to make sense out of the plan of salvation and my own personal experience, an evolution occurred in my thinking. Let me pull another idea in before I hit with that. I work in a center that is a multicultural center. We're working with racism, sexism, all kinds of "isms" all of the time. I've started to be very, very aware in that kind of a setting of how necessary pluralism is for a system to be able to survive. Through working with that, I've become very suspicious of any system that believes it knows the truth, be it a church, be it a nation, a way of life, a psychology. As a psychologist, I see the new therapies come out all the time. I've got enough experience now that I know five years from now the self-help books will be saying something a little bit different and it will always be put out as thought it is the truth rather than a piece of pluralism in the whole process. I'm very cautious about saying now that I know the truth in any way.
Back when I was trying to make sense out of the apparent contradictions in the gospel as presented by the church and my own personal experience, one of the ways I was able to put that together and make some sense was to see the plan of salvation from a slightly different point of view. I began to see it as only the first chapter in a fairly lengthy book. It's like a floor plan, a set of blueprints for an entire, marvelous, wonderful structure. The first page was the foundation and the second page was the framing, and the only things somebody had in their hands was the first two pages, and they were told, "This is it, this is a house," and we didn't know that there was a whole process beyond that, that there were pages 3 through 12 still in the blueprints, we just had the first two in our hands. I started to think that in some ways what we understand in the scriptures about the plan of salvation and the eternities is maybe a little bit like that. They gave us the blueprint for the foundation and for rough framing and that was about it. At that point, you only need masons and carpenters because the plan of salvation that I taught when I was a kid talked about a very narrow scope of who was going to fit into the whole system, and that scope included only heterosexuals. In the era that I grew up in (southern Idaho), it also had everyone pretty well defined as a middle-class businessman, who was memorizing scriptures as he or she tied their shoes in the morning, very task oriented, very productive, always, always achieving something. I didn't fit. I'm assuming most of us in the room didn't fit some aspect of that plan and we struggled with it. It made sense to me later to start to think that when we look through the next few sheets of the blueprint, when we read the later chapters of the book, we'll start seeing how immensely complex this magnificent eternal building is, and how many different types of workers were needed to put it together. The image that always comes to mind is when people understand how important the interior decorators are to the finished product, we'll understand and the picture will fit together. It isn't that the masons weren't necessary, that the carpenters weren't good, that heterosexuals don't have the right to stay in the system, but that the pluralism of the entire, final product is going to be rich and varied.
My experience is that all religions have a lot of trouble with pluralism, Mormonism probably more than any that I know of. But I've seen it in almost all aspects. And to make sense of my world I had to tune into and get in touch with the concept of pluralism.
The last image I'd like to hit comes from John Boswell. He talks about categories and their importance in us relating to each other and to the world. He's got a nomenclature, a system, that I want to borrow for just a moment. He talks about insiders/outsiders, superior/inferior, a little matrix. He suggested on nearly any dimension you can categorize people like that. This is a little trite and overused but straight to the point: probably in American society white males would be an insider/superior category, white females would be an insider/inferior category. Black, Asian or Hispanic male would be in the outsider/superior category, Black, Asian or Hispanic female would be in the outsider/inferior category. But at least there's a category, and there are roles that go with those categories, expectations, and understandings. We may resent the sexism involved in the example that I'm using, but at least there's a category. Maybe the most damning thing is to not have a category, to fall off the chart, to not fit anywhere. Part of what I want to suggest is that this is what has happened for us as gay and lesbian people. We don't have a category, especially within the church. Something very interesting and powerful happens when you don't have a category. You are judged according to the categories that already fit. There's a category called heterosexual. Within the church that's all there is. So you don't fit. So what we become, rather than members of a new box over here, where they pick us out as little kids as our first gayness starts showing, saying, "Oh, you're in this category."
It's kind of like left-handedness. For years and years, there was only one category: right-handedness. If you caught somebody who was left-handed, you tied their hand behind their back, you slapped it with rulers. Seriously! In the school system, many of us are old enough to have grown up in that system. This occurred because there was no legitimate category for left-handedness. It was only when that category became real that the system started to understand and soften and say, "Oh, you're OK, you're just different. You fit into this box rather than in that box. We're going to set up your desk differently, it's going to be OK to write with that hand. You're fine. We now allow space for your category within the system." Within most churches, especially the Mormon church, there absolutely is no category that is legitimate called homosexual. So we were put into the right-handed category, our hands were slapped, tied behind our backs, because what happens is that the only way the system can perceive us at that moment is as deviant members of the category that they know about. Given that heterosexual is the only category, we become deviant heterosexuals, rather than being emotionally and intellectually picked up and put in a different category where we can be related to, treated, interacted with as legitimate members of a different category. If there is one task that I see as monumental for us, both in and outside of the church, it is our task to make the category of homosexual legitimate. I'm not talking about being "good fags" and not having our own diversity within the system. I'm talking about simply confronting the system to say, "This category is real, it is legitimate, it is essential and it fits right into the plan as much as anything else." This for me is finally one of the goals that I think is most important for most of us as we try to deal with that.
Let me go just one step further with that for a moment. Leonard Matlovich was an acquaintance and friend of mine, and I know some of you have heard him speak. I never heard him give a talk but what he didn't use the image that if he had one wish it would be that tomorrow all gay and lesbian people would turn green (I always substitute lavender, I thought that would be a little nicer color for us!). First time I heard Leonard say that, I thought, "I like this. This is really nice." It has to do with the category, it would proclaim our biological base. By the way, one of the main courses I taught at the University of Colorado for years was the human sexuality class. With my interest in homosexuality, I really know the literature pretty well. The literature in support of the biological base of sexual orientation grows every day. I have to be a good enough sexologist to say we can't prove anything. But we can sure build one heck of a case right now for the biological base for sexual orientation. The program, the script, was there. I was in a debate on TV about a week back and I said that, and someone said, "I know someone who's gay who had a twin brother who's straight." I said, "Ah, we've got some really interesting studies--for identical twins if one is gay there's a 95% probability that the other one will have owned a gay identity. Fraternal twins have about a 10% correlation between the whole thing." Anyway, we've got great evidence about that right now. I think that when the eternal picture falls together we've had our script programmed in a long, long time before that. But Leonard's image of us turning green would have been the automatic category-giver. Little green baby would have popped out and we would say, "all right! Pop it into the homosexual can. Congratulations! You're on your way." Given that we're not green, and we're not going to turn green, even on National Coming Out Day, the closest we can do to that is to make the category known by us being known. A real simple truth and all of us know it. We're afraid of that which is unknown. Our non-gay counterparts have no category for us and are afraid of us. It's our job to build that category and we do that by making the unknown known.
I always think of that wonderful image in E.T. where E.T. and Elliott meet each other for the first time and shriek in horror at how ugly they find each other. E.T. equally dismayed by the hideousness of Elliott as the other way around. How beautiful the evolution for us is as we watch the film where E.T. becomes kind of cute by the end, and eventually adorable, and all that's happened is we went through an acclimation process and something very foreign became known. I live in the suburbs on purpose. The gay ghetto is not going to help the world know us more. So I've chosen that that's where I want to live. My neighbors have had a little trouble with it but it's been a wonderful process with everything else too. We have immense power in coming out, in making the unknown known. It's our job to challenge the system, to challenge the churches.
One more image. In the idea of diversity and that ultimately when we understand the world and the universe and the eternities, I'm convinced that it's going to be a very, very diverse place. As I look back, it often hits me with what we do with cultural imperialism, how much we recreate history in our own image and that we need to have the past support where we are and sustain our categories. When I look at the church and I think of things like, how different the early Christians saw things, I see most of you are aware of some stuff that Boswell is writing. The early Christian church, the Catholic church, still has a union ceremony for same-sex couples on the books; they used it for the last time in 1917. It's still there. The Greek Orthodox church does too. In the early history of the church, the idea of same-sex lovers, while never probably the mainstream thought, was certainly a comfortable one for them. The idea that Christ and John the Beloved were probably lovers, else why would he be "the disciple whom Christ loved?" Does that mean he hated the rest of them? Maybe one of the options there was that they were gay lovers! How appalled most Christians would be with that idea simply because we eternally recreate history in our own image. When we start knowing truth then we take away pluralism. There is the possibility that Ruth and Naomi were a neat lesbian couple rather than a younger woman tied into a masochistic tradition about respecting parental rights. Why not interpret it that way? We simple have difficulty thinking of history other than in our narrow little scope which again locks us into a non-pluralistic view of the universe.
As I've gone through my own process, as I said earlier, I'm very suspicious of any system that claims to know the truth, because the end result is that pluralism always gets kicked out the window. Truth becomes narrow rather than broad in its inclusiveness. I don't know what's next, but I know it's OK. I know that I'm OK, I know that I fit into the eternities exactly as I am, and that when the picture is clearer, we in this room are going to have a role in that eternal structure that is sensational. We're discovering it for ourselves right now; the bigger system will see it eventually.
A while back I was giving a talk (this happens all the time), just last week, and the inevitable question, "As a sexologist and a psychologist, why do you think you're homosexual?" came up. And I said, "Just a wonderful stroke of good luck." I really mean that. This is a blessing I never could have asked for. It's kind of like, having been married and having kids, if you really knew what that was like in advance, you'd never do it. And yet, when it's finished, you say, "Hey, this was one of those special blessings too, this is really fantastic." If someone would have described to me the script that would go along with being homosexual in a Mormon world, of course, I never would have chosen it. I am immensely grateful that that has happened to me. It's a gift beyond anything I could have asked for or dreamed for. I think it has pushed me to thinking the new thoughts, to be the cutting edge.
We are the visionaries. We could be, at least. This gift will put us through the refiner's fire. It will either burn us up or make hardened steel out of us. And it's our choice. That's what we do. The gift has been given to us. You couldn't ask for it. It's been given to us. Make yourself hardened steel. We are the potential role-models for egalitarian relationships for the heterosexual world; we've been working this out for years. Sometimes we mess it up pretty badly but we're still trying to work it out. They're just at the edge. They're children in trying to figure out egalitarian male-female relationships. We can be fantastic models. We're the peace-makers. We're the ones who step over the racial boundaries. We're the one's who love because we love, not because the person is of the right church, or the right race, or the right family, or the right gender (in terms of their world out there). And all of this is sometimes very confusing for us, and if you can just turn it around it's unbelievably wonderful that to all of us has been given this potential. We are part of that system that can step beyond the every day, the ordinary, see the visions, think new thoughts.
As I said, there's only two things I bank on right now. I don't know what's next in the eternities. I know that I fit as is, and I know that it's OK, and that's all I really need at this moment to go on. My evolution has had a lot of changes in it, and I'm sure there'll be a lot more. Rather than scaring me, I'm very excited about them right now. A while back I was contemplating the possibility of reincarnation, looking at that. I remembered the wonderful feeling that came when a surge of energy hit me and a spontaneous thought was, "Now if reincarnation is right they better not send me as a straight next time." No offense to any heterosexuals who might be in the room! But it was a wonderful thing to be at a spot to say, "I fit, I've had a wonderful gift given to me that has opened the doors to new visions, new potentials. Let me make myself hardened steel and go out and serve my community and educate the larger world." It's so rare when I give talks that I can say, "it is my prayer that . . . ." But that would be my prayer for us. I'm grateful to be here with you.
Thanks very much.