Mapping Your Own Journey: An Interview with Carol Lynn Pearson
Carol Lynn Pearson
Carol Lynn Pearson’s discovery of the struggles of gay Mormons is a very personal
one: She married a gay Mormon man. In a compelling autobiography,
Goodbye, I Love You (Random House, 1986), she describes her
experiences meeting Gerald at BYU, starting a family with him, and caring for him when he became sick with HIV/AIDS. Now Pearson revisits
the struggles of Mormon families with gay and lesbian members through
a new book, No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay
Loved Ones and a new play, Facing East.
To purchase Pearson's new books, visit www.nomoregoodbyes.com.
A calendar for upcoming performances of Facing East in New
York and San Francisco is available at www.planbtheatrecompany.org.
In the foreword to No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons
around Our Gay Loved Ones, Robert Rees, a former bishop of a
singles ward who often counseled with gay Mormons, calls your new book a "clarion call to action”? Do you think
the Mormon community is ready to accept the book's message?
I think that many individuals within the Church are. This is so clearly for so many—individuals and families—a hugely important and painful part of their experience that it is up on the table for examination and it is not going to go away. Any significant change within an organization is always preceded by this person, that person, this other one making a shift in their own consciousness. Concepts of the "tipping point” or "critical mass” give me hope that on this subject, as well as others, when enough members of the Church are willing to talk about their gay loved ones and insist that we are not yet where we need to be in dealing with this there will be some general movement forward.
There is a perception that in gay Mormon forums women’s voices
are often absent, yet No More Goodbyes include several
stories by or about lesbian Mormons. Was this a conscious decision?
Of course. My entire history of writing has been informed by my personal need to bring femaleness into the discussion. Many of my works demonstrate that. Luckily several of the stories I included in the book just fell into my lap, such as the great story titled "Is She Still My Daughter?” that came to me through my brother in Sandy, Utah, whose home teaching companion is the father of a lesbian daughter. I had to put some effort into finding some of the others. And I still wish I had more. My own personal experience has brought many more gay men than lesbian women into my life, and in terms of suicide and ill-fated marriages (which I emphasize in the book) there is a lot more pressure on men than on women in the Church, so naturally many of the most dramatic stories come from the men. But I am glad I was able to find a number of good stories from the women.
In a recent interview posted by LDS Public Affairs, Apostle Dallin H. Oaks and Seventy Lance B. Wickman refer to the "trap”
parents fall into when they "become defensive” of gay
children who "engage in sinful behavior.” How would you
respond to that statement?
I feel sad when I see wedges developing between family members. I am choosing not to address "sinful behavior.” That is not my personal business to judge. But there are sins that I feel called upon to address. I feel that for families to turn their backs on their children is a sin. I feel that for voices of authority to encourage marriages that are clearly destined to fail is a sin. I feel that for a religious community to make gay people feel that they are the "other" and to drive so many young men to suicide because they see no way out is a sin.
Lesbian and gay Mormons who have seen family bonds severed
are often suspicious when their parents make a phone call or offer
other friendly gestures—They tend think it’s a ruse to get them back
into the Church. Do you think gays and lesbians can play a more positive
role when parents and other relatives offer friendly gestures?
Absolutely! This takes some self-confidence, of course. But to be big enough to "turn the other cheek,” to accept an extended olive leaf is a sign of strong character. The gay person certainly has the right to make clear what their expectations are for a possible mending of relationships and the life changes they are or are not able to make. But to be available to participate in healing is something we all must do, despite any real or perceived hurt.
A gay friend once told me, "It's not that I haven't forgiven
my parents for rejecting my partner—it's just that I no longer have
any interest in associating with them. Call me stubborn, but I am
not going to create a fictitious life for their benefit. I will not
prepare for them, every year, an alternative version of our Christmas
card with my partner cropped out of the picture!” How would you respond
Well, send them every year the same Christmas card with the same picture you send everyone else. Make sure you're both smiling and make sure the message to them personally is one of sincere affection and good will. If it's sent with confidence, some of that spirit will affect them, I think.
Your new play Facing East shows how the suicide
of a gay young man affects his LDS family. Why did you decide to write
about such a "hot button” issue?
The theatre is the perfect place to explore "hot button”
issues. I didn't go out looking for a "hot button” issue.
I've lived with this issue for decades now. I’ve been
outraged by the knowledge of the pain that being gay and religious
brings. I’ve been haunted by the suicide attempt of my friend
Brad Adams, whose story I tell in No More Goodbyes. When
I found myself drawn to playwrighting again, this issue emerged as
an unavoidable one.
How was Facing East received in Salt Lake City?
There is no way the production and reception of Facing East in Salt
Lake City could have gone any better. We had huge and positive publicity
before the play opened, in the press, on radio and television, and
we had excellent reviews. The Deseret News theatre critic,
Ivan Lincoln, gave the play his number one pick in the category of
drama for all the plays he saw in 2006 (tied with Hamlet
at the Utah Shakespeare Festival). But the most thrilling thing was
to watch the sold-out theatre fill up every night with people for
whom I knew this was not just a night out for entertainment. There
were young kids in leather and with spiked hair and nose rings. There
were middle-aged couples in their Sacrament Meeting clothing. There
were a few elderly people in wheelchairs. I knew that every person
who bought a ticket to Facing East was someone who had a
story of their own, that somehow this subject had touched them, either
intellectually or at a very, very deep level of experience and emotion.
I've never been at a play—mine or anyone else's—at which
there was more riveted attention. And the responses that I received
personally after every performance—the tearful gratitude from
so many people for whom this was a red letter event, an evening they
would never forget and that for some was life-changing—made
this one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Do you know if the relatives or partner of any gay Mormon
who committed suicide saw the play?
I was approached by a couple of relatives of Stuart Matis who attended the play. They asked if it was based on his story. I told them no, that I certainly was aware of Stuart’s story and that it proves again how huge the problem is. The events in Facing East are compiled from many experiences that have come to me.
The play is now going on tour. When and where is it going
to be staged?
In Salt Lake again, the last two weeks of April. New York for an off-Broadway run, end of May through June. San Francisco the month of August. For specific dates and for tickets check www.planbtheatrecompany.org.
In Facing East, Alex, the father, says, "Everyone
deserves a shot at being in love.” Do you think that includes gay
and lesbian people?
Of course. As my friend Bruce Bastian once said to me, "Heterosexuals need to realize that they don't have the patent on falling in love.” This is one of life’s most remarkable experiences and needs to be honored.
One of the things that I liked most about Facing East
was the theme of being a pioneer. What does it mean for you
to be a pioneer? How can a gay or lesbian Mormon be one?
Like it or not, we are pioneers on this frontier. Our choices are to sit down and refuse to move or to gratefully step out and make the journey. Where we are now is not an acceptable place; there is too much misunderstanding and unnecessary anguish. I think a gay or lesbian Mormon can be a powerful pioneer in terms of mapping your own journey and following your personal wisdom, while learning from the experiences of others. Don't do the "gay thing” just because someone else says this is how gay people are. Develop a spiritual vision that is independent. Be brave enough even to carry in your handcart all of the good things you received from the Mormon community and teachings. Take only from religion and from society (even gay society) those things that resonate with the highest of who you really are. Make sure your pioneering directs you to places that are higher and clearer and kinder and more loving—of self and of all—than the places you are leaving behind.