What Gays and Mormons could learn from each other about Marginality, Exile, and the Promised Land:
If there is a central story to the Book of Mormon, it is the story of a marginalized people journeying through the wilderness and miraculously arriving in a promised land. That exodus narrative is replayed over and over again by the literal histories of the peoples described in the Book of Mormon, principally in the account of Lehi’s persecution in Jerusalem and subsequent journey across the ocean to ancient America under the direction and providence of God.
That central narrative also plays out in their figurative and doctrinal discourses. In the conversion of Alma the Younger, for example, Alma describes being racked with torment until he had a change of heart and was born again of Jesus Christ. He compares his new state of mind with the former, saying, “And oh, what joy, and what marvelous light I did behold; yea, my soul was filled with joy as exceeding as was my pain!” (Alma 36:20). Spiritually, he had to journey through the wilderness to reach a place of peace.
I think these stories must have provided hope and comfort to the early Mormons who faced their own persecution in mid-nineteenth century America and were forced to journey across the barren plains to their promised land in Utah. And in fact, learning these stories growing up has actually helped me as a gay man. Like my Mormon ancestors, I have moved from marginalization and exile through an emotional rebirth into a new place of peace and community. In that way, the gay American narrative is nearly identical to the Mormon narrative.
Other gay authors have noted these religious themes in contemporary gay culture, such as Frank Browning, who writes,
“If the still new language of American gay liberation sounds remarkably like the Protestant language of reawakening and being born again, it is hardly accidental. For more than three hundred years American culture has been shaped by the paradigm of rebirth in the promised land. Queer activists’ embrace of terms like “safe space” and “liberated zones” falls easily into that tradition, just as nineteenth-century utopian socialist communities did and twentieth-century cultists do. As radically different as their particular faiths and ideologies may be, the underlying spirit is a profoundly American faith in rebirth, both individual and collective, in a place where we will come to a revolutionary comprehension of our place in relation to God or Nature.” (“The Way of Some Flesh,” in Wrestling with the Angel, 114.)
If both Mormons and gays are experiencing a similar phenomenon of self-actualization and the search for a safe space or “zion,” then I believe they have a great deal to learn from one another. Though he might differ on points of doctrine, there is a lot that the young gay person coming out of the closet could take from the story of Alma the Younger, for example.
At the end of his sermon, Alma compares his spiritual journey to the physical journey of his ancestors, and advises his people to remember that exodus, “Yea, and [God] has also brought our fathers out of the land of Jerusalem; and he has also, by his everlasting power, delivered them out of bondage and captivity, from time to time even down to the present day; and I have always retained in remembrance their captivity; yea, and ye also ought to retain in remembrance, as I have done, their captivity” (Alma 36:29 emphasis mine).
That idea of remembering the suffering of our forbears is so important for all of us. For Mormons, this happens when teenagers across the United States gather in the summer to reenact the pioneer trek with makeshift handcarts and bonnets. For the gays, this is marching in a pride parade and remembering the Stonewall riots, the police raids–the Anita Bryants, and the Harvey Milks. When we remember these stories, we ground ourselves in our communities and deepen our sense of identity. It also gives us hope that there is a greater force within us that conquers hardship. And wouldn’t it be nice if some day the gays and the Mormons could sit down and swap stories about the shared trials and tribulations of our respective peoples, and the power their sacrifices bring into our modern lives?