Play takes on agony of Mormon gays

Contra Costa Times, California/March 30, 2007
By Rebecca Rosen Lum

At the beginning of her new play, "Facing East," Walnut Creek writer Carol Lynn Pearson places her main characters, a middle-aged Mormon couple, in a cemetery. Their gay son has killed himself.

"This is the grave of my son, Andrew Isaac McCormick," says his father, Alex. "None of us ... knew him."

The play - opening off-Broadway in New York City this summer - takes on the divide between Mormon family loyalty and the faith's belief that homosexuality offends God.

Pearson in 1986 ignited a slow-burning conversation on how the Mormon community treats its gay members with her seminal book, "Good-bye, I Love You," about her 12-year marriage to a gay Mormon man.

The emotional calls and letters she received, many having to do with the suicide of gay relatives, provided the material for "Facing East" and a second book, "No More Goodbyes: Circling the Wagons around Our Gay Loved Ones."

Her message: Mormons are a loving people, but church stigma has brought misery to gays and lesbians and left families bereft.

"To me it is clear that many suicides among young Mormon homosexuals, as well as gay people in other religions, can be traced directly to a hostile social and religious environment," she writes.

In drawing her conclusion she cites two facts: Utah leads the nation in self-inflicted deaths of young men ages 15 to 24, and federal statistics that show that gays and lesbians commit as much as 30 percent of youth suicides.

"I am not here to dictate policy to my church or any church," she said, relaxing on the couch in her living room, which is rich with paintings, sculpture, books, instruments, and play-writing trophies from Brigham Young High School in Provo, Utah.

"I'm here to tell the stories so we can hear the pain. I'm here to issue an invitation for us all to do better."

She began with her own story. In "Goodbye, I Love You," she writes of the luminously attractive Gerald, who shared her passions for art, theater and music. He urged her to publish her first book of poetry (The self-published "Beginnings" sold out quickly and went into additional printings). The couple married in the Mormon temple and had four children.

Before the birth of her youngest, she learned her husband had lost his quiet battle to defeat his gay desires. The couple set out for California and its comfortable anonymity, their shaky marriage in tow.

Ultimately, they divorced, but her initial devastation, sorrow and bewilderment gave way to a friendship that lasted through his exploration of gay life in San Francisco to his 1984 death from AIDS. She nursed him through his final days in her home.

Phone calls from her readers often begin with sobs, she said.

She has counseled young gay Mormons wracked with suicidal thoughts. She has helped patch frayed families.

The church's message has softened since Pearson wrote "Goodbye."

"There's been a movement away from 'It's an evil choice,'" she said.

But church support for California's Proposition 22, and other laws banning same-sex marriage, stung.

"The 'Protection of Marriage' concept did not protect my marriage ... or that of a significant number of other women and men," she writes in "No More Goodbyes."

"On the contrary, it created the ground on which a marriage was built that could have been predicted to fail."

The church does not comment on individual works, said Michael Otterson, the Salt Lake City-based spokesman for the Latter-day Saints. Mormon elders are "trying to be sensitive," he said, while cautioning gays and lesbians against acting on their feelings.

"We expect celibacy of any person that is not married," said Elder Dallin Oaks, member of the Quorum of 12 Apostles, in an online interview.

Pearson said church elders treat her with warmth and respect. She treasures a note Gordon Hinckly sent her before he became president and prophet: "I appreciate the good you have done and are doing," it says.

Her play seems to have deeply touched Utah's Mormons.

The theater critic for the Deseret Morning News pronounced "Facing East" the best play of the year, in a tie with the Utah Shakespeare Festival's "Hamlet."

The play packed in audiences when it opened in Salt Lake City -- "young kids in punk clothing, elderly people in a wheelchair, middle-aged couples in their church clothes," Pearson said.

It will have its off-Broadway premiere at the Atlantic Theatre in New York in May, and it will be staged in San Francisco in August.

One could get the impression from reading "No More Goodbyes" that despite their see-sawing feelings, Mormons stick by their gay children.

There is the mother who, after initial tears of stormy confusion, sews her daughter's lover a wedding dress and makes her daughter a blouse of the same fabric for the ceremony.

In truth, many have banished their children from the family home, or bluntly announced they would be better off dead, Pearson said.

"I wanted to pave a road with good stories," she said. "We need a map."

"It is our highest hope" that the stories will spur a rapprochement, said Olin Thomas, executive director of Affirmation, a national support organization for gay Mormons.

"Her work is one more drumbeat in making the church aware that people will look at how it treats its members. They have to put on a kinder face."

Online links

For more on Carol Lynn Pearson and "No More Goodbyes":

For more on the church's position:, click on News and Events, Newsroom, Public Issues, then Same-Gender Attraction

To find support:

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