The Book of Brian
A Gay Mormon’s Reflections on the Book of Mormon
By Brian Harper
I bought my tickets for the Book of Mormon the day they went on sale. And for months I counted the days, excited to give my boyfriend a glimpse into my unique Mormon past. It’s a past I don’t talk about much. Being a gay ex-Mormon is a pretty exclusive club, and frankly, there aren’t many people in Minnesota who understand. So to say that I was excited to see my unique history come under the limelight would be an understatement. Strangely though, the thing that was most on my mind as I sat in the theater that evening was my grandmother.
In 1990, just before she died, Grandma and I had a puzzling conversation. Like most of the grown-ups in my life, she had noticed my fondness for show tunes, flowers, and a variety of other things that small boys in rural Idaho ought not care about. “Brian,” she told me. “Some boys don’t get married when they grow up. And you know what? If you grow and don’t get married, that’s okay. Doesn’t matter what the Church tells you… it’s okay! You understand?” I nodded, even though I didn’t.
A few years later, when I figured out what she meant, I discovered that she was right: the higher-ups of the Mormon Church weren’t as amiable as Grandma was when it came to “not getting married,” and I faced the painful reality of becoming an ex-Mormon. I’ve spent the better part of two decades trying to get my mind around that. You see, coming from a place like Idaho (“Little Utah,” as I affectionately call it), being Mormon isn’t just my religion; it’s my cultural heritage. “You’re of pioneer stock!” Grandma used to tell me with pride, noting that every person on both sides of my family tree was descended from Mormon pioneers.
To be sure, Mormon doctrine is no a longer a part of my life. At around 19 or 20 (when I was supposed to be going on a mission) I came to a difficult but necessary decision. Unable to reconcile my life with my faith, I had to choose. And so I did. Closing the door on my Mormon history was hard, but I learned to live with it. I didn’t look back.
And so it was, that I found myself sitting at the Book of Mormon thinking a lot about Grandma, and other parts of my Mormon past. I appreciated the connection to things I could laugh about. Holy underwear, polygamy, and the planet called Kolob (where Heavenly Father lives) are topics that beg to be mocked, and the Book of Mormon didn’t disappoint.
The storyline of Mormon missionaries in Uganda does takes a few artistic liberties, but it’s more or less an accurate depiction of what life is like for young Mormon men—All-American boys just trying to become Gods. Mormon doctrine does in fact teach that “as man is, God once was; as God is, man may become.” And seriously, who among us doesn’t want our own planet full of minions?
Normally, acknowledgements of Mormon culture, and its relation to my past can get me pretty angry. (You should have seen me during the election!). But I suppose that’s what we all do to suppress memories that hurt. Something happened during the Book of Mormon though. I was laughing so hard that I couldn’t get angry, and I let my guard down. Feelings of melancholy crept in and I found myself thinking about all the good parts of Mormonism that I had to give up because I didn’t want the bad parts, and how much I miss some of those things. I miss the strong sense of familiarity that the church offered me, and then took away. I miss feeling proud of my ancestors. I miss the belief that our church had to be the “true” one because some very smart people told me it was, and I believed them. I miss praying, and knowing that God was listening to me since I was a Mormon and Mormons were right. I miss the common bonds of faith and history… the feeling of community that comes from conviction, and the fortitude to move forward even in life’s darkest moments because I too believed. I miss communing with my people. Mostly, I miss my grandma.
Elder Cunningham and Elder Price made picture-perfect missionaries in the Book of Mormon—the kind of missionary I was supposed to be. I could have counted a dozen boys from my high school yearbook to fit the stereotype for each of them. And yes, in spite of (or maybe because of) their singular view of the world, these protagonists were able to offer something to a community ravaged by some very adult issues: clan warfare, AIDS, and female genital mutilation. Seeing those topics addressed though comedy had a moderate shock effect, but the larger lesson was about faith. As I left the play that night, and sauntered over memories I hadn’t touched in years, I thought a lot about faith.
Faith, as the Book of Mormon showed us, doesn’t have to be about religion. Faith is about having something to hold onto, even if it’s really different than someone’s other something. Faith for me can be found in both the gay community where I live, and in the Mormon history I brought with me. Faith can show up in little moments of joy where you least expect it, like having a night out with good friends, taking time to remember my grandma, or holding my boyfriend’s hand. And trust me—when it seems that there isn’t much else in life, a little faith goes a long damn way.
Through some fantastic wit and biting irreverence, the Book of Mormon helped me understand my own history a little better. Homosexuality and Mormonism are each responsible for some of the best, and some of the worst moments in my life, and I wouldn’t change either of those parts of me. The spaces collide sometimes, but I can laugh about that. The Book of Mormon drove home another lesson that Grandma taught me years ago—that we should never take ourselves too seriously, because laughter is the best (and sometimes the only) response to pain.