A Gay Mormon Mission: A Conversation with Johnny Townsend
by Hugo Salinas
With some 60 published stories and essays, Johnny Townsend is a prolific writer. And with a dozen of his short stories touching on the gay Mormon exprience, he has published more gay Mormon-themed fiction than anyone.
Townsend, who lives in Seattle, often draws from his own experiences for his writing: he served an LDS mission in Italy in the early 1980s. In stories written in Christopher Streetmagazine, Backspace, and RFD, Townsend returns once and again to Elder Anderson, a young gay Mormon missionary conflicted by the knowledge that he is gay. “Almond Milk,” another story revolving around Elder Anderson, was published in the Mormon anthology In Our Lovely Deseret (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 1998). Two of his stories with gay characters have also been published in Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought: “Rapture” (Summer 1995: 153-60) and “The Buzzard Tree” (Winter 2007: 120-127). A full list of Townsend’s gay Mormon fiction appears at the end of this article.
Many of your short stories revolve around Elder Anderson, a missionary who often feels miserable—sometimes even suicidal. Assuming that your fiction is at some level autobiographical, why have you written so many stories about an unhappy experience? Do you find writing therapeutic?
I’ve written so many stories about “an unhappy experience” because my mission was a turning point in my life. I faced myself fully in a way I never had before, and I learned to distinguish between what the Church taught and what I actually believed. My mission was unhappy in a lot of ways, but I also felt alive in a way I never had before, and despite everything, I am very grateful for that mission experience. I wanted to convey a little of those complex emotions in my writing and somehow create a testament that a mission is worth serving, no matter how difficult. When a former companion of mine wrote to tell me his son was not sure he wanted to serve a mission, I wrote the son and told him that despite my obvious problems with the Church, I believed that serving a mission was a good thing, and I was very happy when the young man did in fact go on to serve a mission.
Elder Anderson’s companions are often also his close friends, and sometimes they even conspire with him against tyrannical zone leaders. During your mission, did you create strong emotional bonds with some of your companions? Did you endure zone leaders as abusive as Elder Lucas?
I had a handful of truly good companions, as well as some completely awful ones. Elder Lucas is almost word for word the embodiment of a horrible zone leader I had. I chose to write fiction rather than memoirs because the truth doesn’t always work as a story, yet at the same time, my mission stories are largely autobiographical. I change the order of events, or put them in a different city, or put myself with a different companion, but for the most part, they are true stories. “Deiana” was a companion I cared for deeply, and he and my other Italian missionary friends all accepted me after I came out to them, which I can’t say for any of my American companions or friends in the Church. My book of gay missionary stories, if it ever gets published, will be dedicated to my favorite three Italian missionaries—William Cappa, Michelangelo Lo Piparo, and Nicla Covino, all great missionaries and great people as well.
Some of your stories (“Almond Milk,” “Bloodletting, “The Letter”) suggest that Mormons go on missions and obey rules in order to get the “celestial points” necessary for exaltation. Did you believe, as a missionary, in such a petty theology?
I think a great many members believe in the “Celestial points” theology mentioned in some of my stories. They may be absolute creeps in a myriad of ways, but they believe that if they fulfill specific commandments, they are on their way to the Celestial Kingdom. My mission was the first time I was really faced with the difference between being obedient and being good.
Your story “Almond Milk” explores the Mormon theology of sex and suggests that only a cruel God could enjoy his own committed relationship for all eternity while denying it to gay couples. Could you elaborate on that idea?
It is hard to separate myself completely from Mormon doctrine after having been immersed so deeply in it for many years. Therefore, while on the one hand I feel I have received an answer to my many prayers and extended fasts on the subject of homosexuality that God has no problem with gay people, on the other hand, I can’t help but wonder sometimes if I’ve been “deceived.” I am happily and openly gay (there is no one who knows me who doesn’t also know that I’m gay), support the Human Rights Campaign, and have published op-ed pieces on gay rights, but that deep, Mormon part of me always wonders just a little if I’ve made a mistake. But since I am acting in response to what I truly believe are answers to my prayers about the subject and am making the best decisions I can, I can’t believe that a decent God could possibly condemn me for all eternity for what at worst is an honest mistake. The God that so many Christians, and Mormons in particular, describe is a god who, if He really acts the way they say, is someone I honestly would have no desire to follow. He is a mean, unpleasant person. And whatever mistakes I may make in life, I simply can’t believe in a god who is a jerk.
In “Almond Milk,” Elder Anderson says, “Because of my gayness, my only chance for exaltation was martyrdom.” Do you think this is the kind of reasoning that may have led some gay Mormons to commit suicide?
I don’t believe that suicide can be seen as martyrdom, but I can’t say whether or not gay Mormons who commit suicide also see it that way. When I was suicidal, I simply wanted to protect my family from finding out the truth, feeling that no matter how sad they were at my death, they would still not be as sad as if they discovered I was gay, the most horrible sin out there, as I believed at the time. I wanted to show in my story about suicide, “The 9:20 Express Train to Hell,” that there has to be something wrong with a doctrine that drives people to such extreme misery.
Although published in a Mormon anthology, “Almond Milk” contains material that many Latter-day Saints would consider offensive and outrageous. Was the editor supportive, or did he raise concerns? Have you ever had to make changes to your stories in order to please your editors?
The editor, Robert Raleigh, of In Our Lovely Deseret, was very supportive when including my story, “Almond Milk.” As it turns out, mine was perhaps the tamest story in the collection, so there was no need to tone down some of the potential offensiveness. I’ve only had one editor require me to make a change I really didn’t like, and that was for the story, “The Buzzard Tree,” to be published this winter by Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought. The editor simply wanted me to add one sentence more about the grandson’s HIV status, which I felt was unnecessary. The story was principally about the grandmother, and I felt the grandson’s HIV status wasn’t important enough to warrant the extra sentence. The editor felt that readers might wonder if the grandson was going to precede the grandmother in death because of his having HIV, while I’d already made it clear in the one sentence I had devoted to the subject that the grandson was in perfect health. To me, it suggested that members of the Church were still a little too distanced from the subject of HIV to know that treatments today make HIV a very manageable disease. I wanted to include a character with HIV because I want readers to be aware that it is still out there, but I didn’t want to focus as much on it as the editor wanted me to do.
Did you see the movie Latter Days? Do you find similarities between Elder Andersen and Elder Davis?
I saw and loved Latter Days, despite its flaws. I don’t really see similarities between Elder Anderson, my main character, and Elder Davis. They handled their dilemmas differently (and I daresay Davis handled it better than my main character). I think there are dozens and dozens of stories out there of gay Mormons that are sufficiently different that we could and should tell all of them.
Have you published fiction unrelated to the gay Mormon experience? What projects are you currently working on?
I have published 60 stories and essays so far. Many of them have gay Mormon characters, but not all of them do. Some concern straight LDS characters as well, usually women, and some have Jewish characters or non-denominational characters. I enjoy writing about characters with a religious background, but I like my characters to make “right” choices in life, not necessarily “religious” choices. My main project right now is trying to publish my collection of gay missionary stories. About 10 of the 21 stories have been published separately already, but I want them all in one place, in one book. Whether or not anyone is interested in reading that much about the subject remains to be seen, but I feel that these are some of the best stories I have written, so I am hopeful that eventually I will find a home for them. (Update: About 3 years after I conducted this interview, Johnny completed his gay missionary stories project by publishing The Abominable Gayman). I write other stories as well and regularly submit them to magazines, I write the occasional op-ed piece, and I’ve written a non-fiction book about the UpStairs Lounge fire that I’d like to publish as well. (The UpStairs Lounge was a gay bar in the French Quarter of New Orleans that was set on fire by an arsonist on June 24, 1973, in which 32 people were killed.) I’d also like to write a novel, but I think the short story is really my form, so we’ll see how that develops.
Very recently you attended your first Affirmation meeting. What prompted you to connect with other gay Mormons?
I was a very devout Mormon for many years, but my excommunication and the truly horrid way I was treated by members gave me a very bad taste for religion, and I was disgusted with all religion for several years. My second partner was Jewish, though, and I began attending synagogue with him, eventually converting, studying my prayers, and becoming a bar mitzvah as well. I love Judaism, but I will always deep down be a Mormon. I am drawn to Mormonism, I understand it, and I think if I ever have another partner, I would like him to be LDS. At the very least, I’d like a few LDS friends, so attending Affirmation was my attempt to start reconnecting to the community. I believe it is inevitable that the Church will eventually accept homosexuality, and I look forward to the day when I can perhaps really be a part of it again.
“The Buzzard Tree,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 40 (4) Winter 2007: 120-127.
“Rapture.” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought, 28 (2) Summer 1995: 153-160.
“P-Day Man,” RFD, Summer 1991. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“Transfer Cookies,” Harrington Gay Men’s Literary Quarterly, Volume 9, numbers 3-4. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“Bus Surfing, U.S.A.,” Christopher Street 174: 30-33. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“Pissing in Peace,” Christopher Street, 201: 32-35. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“The 9:20 Express Train to Hell,” Backspace, May 1994. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“Washing Dishes,” Christopher Street, 213: 24-29. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“The Ditch,” Christopher Street, 220: 31-34. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“Bloodletting,” Christopher Street, 225: 26-33. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“Killing Babies,” Backspace, Fall/Winter 1995/96. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.
“The Shepherd Boy,” Christopher Street, 230 (December 1995): 31-36. Later re-published in The Abominable Gayman.