Twenty years ago, a gay Mormon character stepped onstage for the first time. His name was Joe Pitt, and he was in Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches.”
Pitt lived in New York. He had a good reputation and a bad marriage to a woman addicted to Valium. As colleagues dealt with the devastation and uncertainty of AIDS — it was the 1980s — he grappled with openly acknowledging his sexuality. He was Mormon and gay, and the two didn’t mix.
Before Pitt, there was a gay Mormon character in a novel: Brigham Anderson, in Allan Drury’s “Advise and Consent,” published in 1959. But words like “gay” and “homosexual” weren’t used; it was all innuendo.
Now the scene has changed. Gay Mormon characters and themes appear more and more often in theater and literature.
Utah playwright Eric Samuelsen said “Angels in America” was a turning point: “For a lot of [Mormon] playwrights, part of the reaction to that play was, ‘Why aren’t we doing this?’ ”
Then, in 2008, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints threw its weight behind Proposition 8, the ballot measure that ended gay marriages in California. Prop 8 is now before the Supreme Court, with a decision expected in coming weeks.
“I really believe that Prop 8 really inspired a lot of people to say, ‘I’m not taking this anymore, I’m going to write my story,’” said Gerald Argetsinger, a professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.
Argetsinger, who is gay and Mormon, has spent the past few years working with friends to compile works that contain gay Mormon themes and characters. Their anthology, “Latter-Gay Saints: An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction,” is due out in July from Lethe Press.
Looking back to 1959, they found more than 200 plays, short stories and novels — half from the past five years.
In the past 20 years, 25 plays with gay Mormon characters or themes have been professionally produced or performed on college or university campuses, with more than 15 in the past five years.
The growth of gay Mormon theater comes against a culture shift in the way the Mormon church relates to gay men and lesbians. The church-run Web site mormonsandgays.org pairs the church’s official stance — “[homosexual] attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is” — with stories of gay Mormons and their families and friends.
An independent group, Mormons Building Bridges, is “dedicated to conveying love and acceptance to LGBT individuals.”
After the backlash set off by its support of Prop 8, the church has largely sat out recent statewide fights over gay marriage and recently announced its support for the compromise proposal of the Boy Scouts of America to allow gay youths but exclude gay adult leaders.
Fiction has provided a way to talk about the lingering tensions on both sides.
After “Angels in America,” there was Mark O’Donnell’s play “Strangers on Earth,” Paul Rudnick’s comedy “The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told” and Neil Labute’s “A Gaggle of Saints.”
In 2001, Moises Kaufmann’s “The Laramie Project” told the story of the beating death of gay college student Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. One of the men who beat him was Mormon, and the show put a spotlight on the church’s uneasy relationship with homosexuality.
More recent works involve two subsets of characters in the gay-and-Mormon narrative: women and missionaries.
Argetsinger has noticed a difference in the way gay men and lesbians write about the church. “Lesbians are able to put the church behind them better than Mormon men are,” Argetsinger said. When they leave the church, he said, lesbians don’t look back in writing. They just leave.
Only four of 25 gay-and-Mormon plays in the past 20 years have been written by women: Julie Jensen’s “Wait” (2005), Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Facing East” (2006), Laekin Rogers’s “Hands of Sodom” (2008), and Melissa Leilani Larson’s “Little Happy Secrets” (2009).
Gay missionaries are making frequent appearances. In 2009, Steven Fales’s “Missionary Position” told the story of a “squeaky-clean Mormon boy on his mission, trying to hide his homosexuality.” That same year, Devan Mark Hite told the story of a gay Mormon missionary in “Since ‘Psychopathia Sexualis.’ ”
In 2011, “The Book of Mormon” stormed Broadway, and so did the musical’s gay missionary character. The show has been wildly successful, which Argetsinger credits to the show’s satirical approach.
A newer show, Matthew Greene’s “Adam and Steve and the Empty Sea,” tells the story of a missionary and his gay best friend. It premiered in January at Plan-B Theatre in Salt Lake City, a venue dedicated to showcasing the works of Utah playwrights.
Although some of its recent shows have dealt with homosexuality and Mormonism, Plan-B’s producing director, Jerry Rapier, said that’s not necessarily a focus. He said he thinks in terms of “a character who happens to be gay and Mormon, instead of a gay Mormon character.”
In February, Plan-B brought the first transgender Mormon character to the stage in Matthew Ivan Bennett’s “ERIC(A).” The show is about a transgender man grappling with a sex-change operation after years spent living as a Mormon housewife.
An insider perspective makes the shows work, said Rapier, who is gay. “They ring true because they are written by active, faithful Mormons,” he said.
Kellie Kotraba is the editor of Columbia Faith & Values.