Monday, March 21, 2016

The Dogs of God

Artwork By Christy Grandjean

In 1692 at JΓΌrgensburg, Livonia, a church court called Thiess of Kaltenbrun as a witness of a robbery. What made this man unique was that he was an openly avowed werewolf.

Shocked at the man’s boldness at so openly admitting his crime, the judges asked him for more details. Thiess told of how witches would steal the grain and livestock of his land three times a year. He and his friends would transform into wolves and follow them on foot to Hell. There they fought the witches for their property. Should they win, the harvest for the following year would be bountiful. Should they lose, the witches would ruin the harvest with storms or drought. The old man was quite proud of his service to the good people of his village.

The judges were unsure of how to proceed. They asked Thiess if he had made a contract with the devil. The man was indignant. “I, good sirs, am a dog of God.” He staunchly defended his standing as a good Christian, citing all he had done in his service as a werewolf. No matter how much the judges pressed him, he would not admit to having done any wrong.

In the end, the church court gave Thiess ten lashes and sent him into exile for his heresy, no doubt assuming that the 80-year-old man would not be around much longer anyway.

Thiess’ punishment is actually quite in line with what Jesus prescribed to the Nephites:
But if he repent not he shall not be numbered among my people, that he may not destroy my people, for behold I know my sheep, and they are numbered. (3 Nephi 18:31)
Those who refuse to conform to the fold are not counted as part of it. Sheep are humble, meek, and easily lead. They are fully dependent on the shepherd and trust him implicitly. A good sheep is an obedient sheep. However, sometimes those aggrieved members aren’t sheep at all, but ravening wolves, the false prophets and servants of Satan that Elder Nelson recently warned us about. And the scriptures are very clear about what to do with wolves:
And behold, if a wolf enter his flock doth he not drive him out? Yea, and at the last, if he can, he will destroy him. (Alma 5:59)
The issue I face is that I am most certainly a wolf, not a sheep.

Wolves are nothing like sheep. Their trust must not only be won, but maintained. They will follow a leader, but only so long as he is fit to lead. They know their place in the pack hierarchy, but will vie for higher status, and will fiercely defend themselves if another thinks them of lesser worth. They are a family that embraces contention as normal, even healthy. They cooperate to survive and express genuine affection and play. Sheep need a master; wolves need a leader.

Somehow as a pup I was placed with the lambs and suckled alongside them. When we were all small fluff balls, there wasn’t much of a difference. It was only when we grew older that it became obvious that I couldn’t eat grass. I craved meat – in every sense of the word. And now there is the constant threat that if the shepherds notice me, they’ll surely chase me out.

I could leave of my own accord, of course. The World is wide open, ripe for the taking. Yet I do not want to leave. The sheepfold is my home, the sheep my friends, the Master Shepherd my leader. So what’s a poor wolf to do?

Fortunately, I have some legal rights:
Nevertheless, ye shall not cast him out of your synagogues, or your places of worship, for unto such shall ye continue to minister; for ye know not but what they will return and repent, and come unto me with full purpose of heart, and I shall heal them; and ye shall be the means of bringing salvation unto them. (3 Nephi 18:32)
I may not be allowed to be a part of the fold, but I can stay inside the pen as long as I care to remain. The shepherds aren’t allowed to chase me too far away, though they can deny me the sheep’s food. But I couldn’t digest it anyway. It is hard to adjust sometimes, when before I was promised that I would always be provided for. After all, did not He who made the Lamb make me?

In many ways I am also like the Greek woman who came to beg Jesus to heal her daughter.
But Jesus said unto her, Let the children first be filled: for it is not meet to take the children’s bread, and to cast it unto the dogs. And she answered and said unto him, Yes, Lord: yet the dogs under the table eat of the children’s crumbs. (Mark 7:27-28)
Wolves are very proud creatures. While we may submit to an alpha wolf that has earned our trust, we would never accept a position lower than we deserve. And now we are asked to be the lowest of the low, to be denied the food of gospel ordinances and merely catch the crumbs that our brothers and sisters drop from the table of full Church membership. How could a wolf ever take a place among the lowly dogs?

Yet I know I can never go back to being a sheep. And I don’t want to leave. So I circle the sheep pen, watching the shepherds tremble at this wolf who won’t leave them alone like all the others that they have cast out before. The Master Shepherd is silent and watches me too.

And I wonder, am I a dog of God, or a ravening wolf?

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Northstar Conference Review

I had the opportunity to attend the Northstar conference this weekend. My feelings were somewhat mixed before I arrived. On the one hand I have many friends in Northstar, some who are among its leadership. I’ve advocated for their organization’s place in the queer Mormon community, even when I do not agree with all their tenets. On the other hand, Northstar has caused me very real pain. It was after watching one of their Voices of Hope videos that I ironically came close to ending my life. Rumors of conversion therapy, self-loathing, and denial of identity coupled with insistence on mixed-orientation marriages swam in my brain as I approached the Provo conference center with trepidation.

I was pleasantly surprised with what I found. The tables containing flyers for Journey into Manhood and similar programs were conspicuously absent. Similar philosophies of “brokenness” were gone, and the conference instead focused on healing the wounds of shame, loneliness, and family rifts while fomenting love, compassion, friendship, intimacy, and self-acceptance. Some leaders even used the word “gay” on occasion, though “SSA” was by far more frequent. There has been a narrative shift where same-sex attraction is no longer a trial to be overcome. Instead the difficulty is learning how to incorporate it into a Christ-centered life. Various members, of course, still might hold on to the old narrative, but the tone from the leadership and speakers was clearly one of self-acceptance.

Perhaps the most influential section of the conference was the session for ecclesiastic leaders. 30 bishops and 8 stake presidents were in attendance, as well as another 30 auxiliary leaders. All told there were 120 people in the room, who are now among the most educated ecclesiastic leaders in the church on queer issues. The presenters, two former bishops with same-sex attraction and the father of a transgender woman, emphasized love, acceptance, and understanding. The session was unabashedly in favor of transgender people, including those who choose to present as their true gender. A woman in attendance even said “If a bishop lets the relief society know that a transgender woman will be using our bathroom, what do we care? We have individual stalls anyway.”

While some Church leaders are adamantly against Northstar and even sent letters of warning to its leaders, it is clear that they are making significant inroads where other organizations are seen as too suspect. Virginia Pearce, daughter of President Hinckley, visited the conference as an invited speaker and gave it her approbation. She acknowledged her own ignorance on the subject of queer issues, our deep pain, and gave a tacit confession that some have done more harm than healing when trying to help. To hear such from a former Church leader was deeply healing for me.

Gender equality was a mixed bag. There were many women serving in leadership positions as well as speakers and session presenters, some as support for their husbands and many serving in their own right. The rhetoric sometimes focused more strongly on gay men, as though they were the only Mormons that were queer and that women were only involved if they were married to a gay man. However, leadership was aware of this problem and had set aside time for queer women to give feedback on how to improve Northstar to better meet their needs. I’m optimistic for improvement in this area.

A huge effort was made to include transgender Mormons throughout the conference. Because the Church has no official policy on the topic, neither does Northstar. There were many people presenting as their internal gender, and even the bathrooms were carefully labeled as gender inclusive. Several transgender individuals were on leadership, and many of the breakout sessions addressed their concerns specifically. It was perhaps the most trans-affirming space I’ve ever been in.

And that is what I loved most about the conference. Underneath all the trappings beats a deliciously queer heart. Sex may be reserved for husband and wife, but otherwise all bets are off. Northstar has, perhaps inadvertently, emphasized what all queer people preach but seldomly actualize: being queer is much more than whom you want to have sex with. Once sex is off the table, all other aspects of queerness jump into sharp relief.

One of the keynote speakers was a lesbian Catholic who had chosen to be celibate. But she went a step further and said we should demand of our leaders equal respect for those who forgo marriage. To choose celibacy (and not merely chaste singleness while miserably awaiting marriage) is just as subversive as gay marriage to the heteronormative narrative the Church upholds, yet carries little of the official sanction. There were also examples of couples who choose to live celibate lives together, breaking down traditional paradigms of what relationships are.

Likewise chaste polyamory abounds. While the cultural narratives both in the Church and our world more generally advocate all-consuming monogamy (even in groups such as Affirmation), Northstar is quite progressive in queering our ideas of love. While sex may be reserved for marriage, Northstar embraces promiscuous emotional intimacy, even an orgiastic public vulnerability. No doubt they would be loath to see it in such sexual terms, but their message is the queering of friendship into something as strong as marriage. In the end, they are as queer as the next gay Mormon, and their very existence, their struggle to survive in a Gospel context, queers the space around them.

Most hopeful of all were Northstar’s efforts to reach out to the broader queer Mormon community. Representatives of Affirmation, Mormons Building Bridges, and USGA were all in attendance. In fact, MBB hosted an online conversation earlier in the week, and it was amusing to watch the leaders of Northstar and Affirmation acknowledge that the other’s organization wasn’t so evil after all. There was an undercurrent of acceptance and refraining from judgement, with a great respect for each individual’s agency. It would seem that Northstar’s philosophy is to provide resources for those who choose to stay in the Church, but acknowledges other paths as legitimate choices to be treated with love.

Also, the food was fantastic.

I’m looking forward to next year’s conference with gusto.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Abrahamic Sacrifices

Recently I’ve been seeing some posts from LDS friends saying “I support the Prophet” on various controversial issues. The implication behind this is that one should give unquestioning loyalty to the Lord’s anointed servants, and that those who do not are failing in their covenant duties. I’d like to go through the extreme implications of this statement on LGBTQ issues as well as their more general applications.

One of the arguments that queer members of the Church often make is that the current policies and doctrines of the Church are harmful and that they do not feel loved or accepted as a result. In light of prophetic infallibility in matters of Church governance, the answer to this should be: tough luck. God and his mouthpieces are in no way obligated to spare you any pain. If anything, it’s inevitable that you’ll suffer a lot. For anyone who thinks that God wants you to be healthy, happy, and whole, you should probably reread Mark 9:43-48. Jesus had no mercy for extenuating circumstance:

If thy hand offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter into life maimed, than having two hands to go into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched... And if thy foot offend thee, cut it off: it is better for thee to enter halt into life, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched... And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out: it is better for thee to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye, than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire: where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched.

In other words, if your sexuality is impure, cut it out, mangle it, destroy it. If you suffer intense emotional trauma, if you want to kill yourself, if you can barely function through the pain and loneliness that such a sacrifice causes, remember that it is better for you to enter into the kingdom of God as a broken, shattered mess than to be cast into hell fire. Obedience is all that matters; your well-being does not. As general authorities often repeat from the Lectures on Faith:

Let us here observe, that a religion that does not require the sacrifice of all things never has power sufficient to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation; for, from the first existence of man, the faith necessary unto the enjoyment of life and salvation never could be obtained without the sacrifice of all earthly things.

Obey. You don’t have to like it. It doesn’t have to be good for you. You just have to do it.

Now, lest those who do not deal with LGBTQ issues nod their heads and sagely apply this counsel, let’s remember that they too are under the same stringent requirement of absolute obedience. Do you really know what that means? President Monson could issue a proclamation tomorrow on any topic and you would be bound to follow it. He could demand the assassination of Donald Trump, and we would have to pull the trigger. He could declare genocide on everyone in the state of Nevada, and we would have to take up arms and enact the slaughter of every man, woman, and child. He could ask that all members murder their own children, and if we wished to stand by the prophet, we would each need to hold the pillow over our babies’ mouths until they stopped breathing.

“But the Prophet would never command such a thing!” you might say. Actually, God already has (1 Nephi 4:12-13; 1 Samuel 15:3; Genesis 22:2). They are known as Abrahamic sacrifices, and President Nelson has recently reminded us that we are all called upon to make these sacrifices in our lives. Abrahamic sacrifices are when we suspend our own moral compass because we trust that God knows better; we sacrifice what is most precious to us, even when such a sacrifice may be illegal or immoral. We must be willing to commit any atrocity in obedience to God and his prophets, so that like Caesar's soldier, we can say:

If you bid me bury my sword in my brother's breast or my father's throat or the body of my pregnant wife, I will perform it all, even if my hand be reluctant.

We need to tear away this facade of love and happiness in the Gospel and recognize that it is cruel, harsh, and unyielding. And yet that does not necessarily make it invalid. It is the way things are, and we do not have the option of changing it. We can only choose to make the sacrifice or reject it.

Are you truly willing to completely sublimate your own will and place it in President Monson’s hands, or even in God’s? It is a question of faith. Because after enduring all this suffering, the promise is that God will make it all better in the next life. Obey unconditionally, and all suffering, including the suffering of our conscience, will eventually be removed and healed. Dostoevsky famously had his character Ivan reject salvation that was built on the suffering of innocents, even a temporary suffering:

I don't want harmony. From love for humanity I don't want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong. Besides, too high a price is asked for harmony; it's beyond our means to pay so much to enter on it. And so I hasten to give back my entrance ticket, and if I am an honest man I am bound to give it back as soon as possible. And that I am doing. It's not God that I don't accept, only I most respectfully return him the ticket.

So here are questions I cannot answer. Do we trust God and his prophet? Will they make it all worthwhile? And if they do, is it morally justifiable to perpetuate suffering at their behest? Dare we trust our own moral compass over God’s commands?

Saturday, March 5, 2016


 Artwork by Christy Grandjean

When I was a child, my family would make an annual pilgrimage to my grandparents’ house in Colorado, a fourteen-hour drive and often difficult for three restless little boys. While my mother liked to drive straight through, my father often made stops at tourist locations to stretch his legs.

I remember once we stopped at Four Corners, where four state boundaries meet. It was an unimpressive piece of desert, identical to the hundreds of miles of desert around it. But someone had erected a monument, really just a platform, with the state lines marked out so tourists could say they stood in four different states at once.

As a child I remember finding this place very impressive. There was something magical about it; the hot air seemed charged with meaning and the small arrowhead my parents bought me seemed to carry some of that power. There was no reason for this to be so, and yet it was.

Later I would recognize this as a liminal space, from the Latin limen, meaning threshold. As humans we are used to thinking of spaces as discrete binaries; there’s an inside and an outside, and people are in one space or the other. But for a brief moment when we are crossing the threshold, we are in neither place. In some ways, we cease to exist in space altogether. These spaces between the spaces are magical; they are brief, fleeting, but filled with power, creativity, and terror. They’re why we count down the New Year, because for a brief moment it’s neither 2015 nor 2016, but the time in between, and that’s important enough for us to stay up and take notice.

But liminal spaces are dangerous too; they are strange, unfamiliar, and disorienting. There’s always the possibility that one could become lost and never return. Strange gods and monsters lurk in liminal shadows; H.P. Lovecraft’s works are all based on what happens when these monsters leave their liminal space and poke their heads briefly into ours. Sometimes we come out inspired, shaped and strengthened by our experience. Most often we go mad.

*          *          *

Queer Mormons are often asked to make a choice between two worlds, two narratives. The first is the Church’s official story. According to our prophets, who receive direct communication from God, we all existed in a pre-mortal life with God. We were all heterosexual, and part of our purpose in coming to mortality was to find another child of God of the opposite sex and to join together in marriage. This pairing of male and female would complete us and allow us to continue to mature into deities ourselves. However, some children are born into mortal bodies that are defective, in such a way that they have desires to have sex with their own gender. This same-sex attraction is an emotional illness that people need to overcome, as it is an impediment to the plan to complete oneself through an eternal joining of opposite and complementary genders. While such feelings may never completely go away, by focusing on other aspects of life as well as duty, anyone should be able to marry someone of the opposite sex or remain chaste for this life if that does not happen. As all will be resurrected into perfect bodies after death, an illness such as same-sex attraction will be gone, and whoever is faithful to God’s commandments in this life will have the full joy of an eternal heterosexual marriage in the next life.

The second narrative contradicts the former on many points. In this story, God created us all differently from the beginning, with some being straight, others gay, some bisexual and others asexual. Yet because the majority of God’s children are straight (some 90%), we came to feel that this was the only correct sexuality. To straight people, particularly straight men, the thought of having sex with someone of the same sex was repulsive, not realizing that for others the idea of having sex with the opposite sex was equally undesired. Because some of these straight men were in a position of ecclesiastic authority, they conflated their own disgust with an idea that God too must find such behavior distasteful. So they created laws against such sexual orientations, forcing the smaller population of queer people into hiding. This continued for several millennia, until queer liberation movements finally began to uncover this hidden community. We felt that our form of love was just as natural and legitimate as straight love, and demanded equal rights and status. For us, our sexuality is a part of our eternal identity, something that we will carry with us into the next life. Homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality are all just as legitimate as heterosexuality, fully functional and healthy. By acknowledging and incorporating our sexuality, we are better able to live full, balanced lives and form meaningful, vital relationships.

For the longest time I struggled to know which of these narratives to follow. I would swing back and forth between them like a pendulum, uncertain of where I would come to rest, or if I ever would. Both narratives were appealing, but when I tried to adhere to one, the other would pull me violently back. It was a game of tug of war where I was the rope, and I was close to breaking down the middle. I realized that what I really was looking for was a synthesis of the two narratives, a way for them to harmonize into a single narrative I could follow. I wanted an absolute truth I could devote myself to and pattern my life after. If I could only do that, I felt that all the tension in my life would be gone. But such a dream never came to pass.

Eventually I realized that I could neither live with these narratives nor could I live without them. They are irreconcilable, forever warring, coeternal. Perhaps someday one narrative will kill the other, and rule unchallenged. I don’t know which one will win, and in many ways I no longer care. I packed my bags and settled on the border between the two narratives, the liminal space created by their clear demarcation. Now I am part of both and neither at the same time. I am both sick and healthy, empowered and enslaved, gay and straight, singular and plural, holy and corrupt. The space I inhabit should not exist, and yet here I am. And in living in this liminal space, I myself become liminal: willfully insane, monstrous, powerful, divine.

The liminal creature I identify with most is the werewolf, a persona I often assume. Most people do not understand the werewolf very well. They think of him as a man who can turn into a wolf, a man who is usually a man, but then is replaced by a wolf once a month on the full moon. Even the name we give him implies this, were (an Old English word for man) and wolf. The manwolf. The man/wolf. But if you could get inside a werewolf’s head, you would find something completely alien. The man narrative and the wolf narrative both exist simultaneously at every moment. He is always a man, and always a wolf, with these ideologies clashing, harmonizing, murdering each other. The werewolf is in constant warfare with himself, and by rights should not exist even in our imaginations. He is two discrete beings rolled into one.

As I become liminal myself, these two narratives, Mormon and Queer, exist inside of me, without reconciliation, without any hope of such. I no longer seek an absolute truth, but spend my energy in holding both narratives in my mind, knowing that both are true and neither are true. I stand in no-man’s land; I am the whole field in which the battle is waged. And in this place that is not a place I find eternal torment and eternal peace.

In the old days, the men and women who dwelt in liminal spaces were called shamans. They lived between the people and the unseen world of the supernatural, mediating between the two groups. They were respected, even feared, by both. I’m new to this role, an apprentice shaman if you will. There’s no one left to teach me, for all the other shamans are dead. But the monsters and gods of liminality are still here, and they tutor me through life experiences. In the end, that’s how all shamans learn anyway. So as a young shaman, a young werewolf, a young Mormon gay man, my calling is to mediate between the two narratives, to serve as an empathic bridge between the two. I teach Mormons to be queer and Queers to be mormon. I teach respect and love, but acknowledge fear and pain. I can never be fully part of either, but I will never be far from home. My task is not to reconcile the two, nor to aid in the triumph of one over the other. Those are cosmic matters.

My task is to know both

and to be