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