I had an opportunity to chat via email with Jonathan Langford. His book will hopefully generate some productive discussion among Mormons and others who work with teens dealing with same-sex attraction.
Was there a single event, or was there a pattern of events, that prompted you to write No Going Back?
I should start by saying that No Going Back isn’t what I expected for my first novel. I’ve always loved science fiction and fantasy — my master’s thesis in college was about coming of age among hobbits in The Lord of the Rings — and I always assumed that if I ever got off my duff and actually did something with my creative writing, it would be sf&f. So writing this book came as a surprise to me.
Back about eight years ago, there was a conversation on AML-List, an email discussion list sponsored by the Association for Mormon Letters, about homosexuality and Mormonism.
The conversation was sparked by Rex Goode, an AML-List member who is active LDS but also open about his same-sex attraction. He observed that people who experience such attractions but are committed to staying in the Church typically aren’t understood or accepted terribly well either in the Church or in the gay community. Members of the Church don’t feel comfortable with his same-sex attraction, and his desire to live by Church standards seems pointless or even destructive to other gays.
At the time, none of us on AML-List could think of much fiction that’s been written about people who are same-sex attracted but stay in the Church. Someone — I think it was me — asked if anyone could think of a Mormon YA novel where a teenager even had a friend who was gay or struggling with this issue. Again, nothing.
And so I started to think about what that kind of story might be like — not because I intended to write it myself, but because I thought someone should write that kind of story. A story, say, where a Mormon kid admits to his best friend that he’s attracted to guys, and then they have to deal with what happens after that.
Skip ahead six years, to New Year’s 2008, when I made a resolution to try again to do something with my creative writing. And so I trotted out my gay-Mormon-teen story idea. And the ideas start flowing. What if the best friend’s father is also the boys’ bishop? What if my gay Mormon kid finds his way to a high school GSA club — gay-straight alliance — and experiences firsthand that feeling of not being understood by either side? And so I started writing, and the story took on a life of its own. I was already well into the writing before I even heard about Proposition 8.
Isolation seems to present the greatest challenge to Paul in the book. Have you noticed any organizations that can help teens such as Paul to stay connected to their peers without being pressured them to be something they don't want to be?
That’s a very insightful observation. Paul’s attractions, and the conflict between them and his religious beliefs, are certainly a challenge for him; but possibly a bigger challenge is that problem of not being understood or accepted.
The short answer to your question is that there doesn’t seem to be much out there that meets your description. I asked around and came up with two possibilities:
- LDS Teen Help, http://www.ldsteenhelp.com/. I emailed them several days ago to try to get some idea of what they offer, but didn’t get an answer back. Checking out the Program Descriptions page, under Discussion Groups I found the following:
“Discussion Groups are created so that individuals can get together with others that are struggling with the same things and talk about positive ways of dealing with it. We do not talk about problems, only solutions. Discussion groups are each assigned a moderator that leads weekly discussions, often dealing with ways of overcoming temptation. Discussion group members can also create their own topics and seek advice or input of other group members.”
There are also links to resources on topics including same-gender attraction, pornography, and masturbation. As a whole, the site seems geared more toward helping with problems as opposed to general support, but that’s just my guess from what I saw posted there.
- North Star, http://northstarlds.org/, sponsors an online support group for youth. However, one person I know in the North Star organization says the youth support group isn’t very active at this point.
There seems to be a lot of prejudice, both within the Church and out of it, against those with same gender attraction. What do you think it will take to help members of the Church deal with such sensitive issues?
I think prejudice starts to go away as soon as people start to put a human face on something like this. That can happen through getting to know people on an individual level who experience same-gender attraction. It can also happen through fiction, which is part of how I hope No Going Back might help with this.
I also have to say that I think Church members are less prejudiced than many people seem to assume must be the case, based on our doctrinal views about homosexuality. I think there’s a great deal of compassion out there on a personal level, particularly among Church leaders like Paul’s bishop who are dealing one-on-one with people who experience this challenge.
We are, I think, careless, thoughtless, uninformed, and unknowing more often than we’re deliberately unkind. That may seem like a strange thing to say given some of the things that happen in my book, but I think it’s true.
Can you recommend any other books that would assist teens and their parents should they have a similar experience?
It depends on what you’re looking for. In Quiet Desperation by Fred and Marilyn Matis and Ty Mansfield, published in 2004 by Deseret Book, includes a substantial section where Ty, who is same-gender attracted, talks about managing that within a context of Christ’s atonement. Like most of the other resources I’ve seen, though, the approach seems better suited to adults than teenagers, although it might help parents to have a better understanding of same-gender attraction from a gospel context.
There have been several books published with nonfiction narratives by and about members of the Church who have dealt with this issue. One collection I though was good was A Place in the Kingdom: Spiritual Insights from Latter-day Saints about Same-Sex Attraction, edited by Garrick Hyde and Ginger Hyde and published in 1997 by Century Publishing. Carol Lynn Pearson recently put together a similar collection of stories titled Circling the Wagons, but with a heavy emphasis on people who decide to leave the Church.
One of the problems with finding resources is that everyone has an agenda. In some cases, it’s an agenda about the possibility of changing orientation. In other cases, it’s an agenda about why you should embrace your gay identity. Even among those who believe in being faithful to Church standards, there’s a distressingly sharp division between those who focus on therapy to change orientation and those who focus on enduring in faithfulness without any promise of change in this life.
There are at least four different organizations I know about that provide support for Mormons who experience same-gender attraction and their families and friends, though from very different perspectives. Each recommends resources that are consistent with its own view of the issue. For links to these organizations, together with my quick descriptions of their basic positions, go to my website, www.langfordwriter.com and go to the Mormonism and Homosexuality page.
LDS Teen Help sent this to Mr. Langford and he forwarded this on to me:
We have two sets of resources other than just basic links to websites and
information. The first is done completely online and basically someone that
needs help is partnered with a mentor who can guide them along the path to
living righteously. The main goal of the mentor is to just be another LDS
teen that can be a positive influence in the life of this person and,
whenever necessary, encourage them to get the help they need from their
Bishop, parents, or counselors. If the person is struggling with addiction,
the mentor can also help to be a check in point.
The other resource we have is new and we're just trying it out in some
areas. This deals specifically with Same-Gender Attraction. It's called
Gender Affirmative Mentoring and basically a young man struggling with
same-gender attraction is paired with a friend who is straight and a good
example of Christ-like masculinity. The friend is meant to mentor the young
man in the ways of manhood and kind of include him in male activities that
may not have been a part of life growing up. All of this is done with the
oversight of a Bishop. We have a manual that was developed for the all 3
people involved (the Bishop, Mentor, and Mentee). This seems to be the most
promising thing I'm aware of right now. I really feel like this has the
potential to help a lot of people.