Johnny Townsend has published 34 books, almost all of them on the subject of gay and feminist Mormons. Six of his books have been named to “Best of the Year” lists by Kirkus. Johnny’s book, Let the Faggots Burn: The UpStairs Lounge Fire, was the first book on the arson at a French Quarter gay bar that killed 32 people on Gay Pride Day in 1973. He’s also one of the editors of Latter-Gay Saints: An Anthology of Gay Mormon Fiction.
I interviewed Johnny about his work and his thoughts on the future
JB: Mormonism and homosexuality has been the primary topic you’ve written about for over two decades. Why do you think it has remained so important to you for so long?
JT: My earliest published stories were about a fictionalized but autobiographical gay Mormon missionary in Italy. But when I converted to Judaism several years later, I began reading religious literature that changed the way I thought about writing. Almost every Jewish novel or short story I read used Judaism as background material only. Even when Judaism was central to the story, there never seemed to be any attempt for the author to either prove or disprove Judaism itself. Mormon literature, on the contrary, seemed obsessed with this idea. That agenda almost always turned such literature into propaganda, whether pro or con.
I was moved by Isaac Bashevis Singer’s multitude of stories about shtetl life in Poland before the Holocaust. He captured a world which no longer existed. And yet almost any reader could relate to those stories. I realized I could write extensively about Mormonism, take advantage of a culture I deeply understood, and try to tell stories that anyone could appreciate.
Because Mormonism informs my stories, it is impossible to avoid the continual analysis of what is “true” or “not true,” since that debate forms the core of the Mormon worldview. And yet several reviewers have commented that many of my stories seem neither pro nor con. I don’t accomplish that every single time, of course, and sometimes, I deliberately seek to point out that a particular teaching or policy or cultural attitude is wrong, without necessarily implying the entire system is faulty.
For years, I did hope that Mormons might read my stories and be influenced to understand that LGBTQ folk should be accepted into the fold. I was disappointed when I eventually realized that was never going to happen. But I still felt it important to use a specific culture to illustrate the themes that interested me. People often can’t see their own faults or strengths until they view them from a new perspective. Stories like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” or Star Trek’s “Let That Be Your Last Battlefield” made me want to use Mormonism in a similar way.
In an interview in 2007 you wrote, “I am happily and openly gay (there is no one who knows me who doesn’t also know that I’m gay), support the Human Rights Campaign, and have published op-ed pieces on gay rights, but that deep, Mormon part of me always wonders just a little if I’ve made a mistake.”
Eleven years later, has this doubt gone away? Do you have any advice for LGBTQ+ folks facing this same doubt?
As a child, I learned that walking underneath a ladder was bad luck. I learned that a black cat crossing my path was bad luck. Breaking a mirror was seven whole years of bad luck. No rational adult could still believe these ridiculous superstitions, and yet when any of these “dangers” enter my life today, there is a split second when those warnings flash through my mind again. And these were superstitions taught to me playfully and very briefly. How much more likely are religious teachings, hammered into me day after day, year after year, going to linger in the portion of my brain that stores memories?
Ex-Mormons who absolutely no longer believe in the Church talk routinely about how hard it was for them to drink a cup of coffee, or get a piercing, or wear a sleeveless blouse, or take a sip of alcohol. Teachings cling to our psyches, even if the authority behind them doesn’t. For years, I knew that logically, the Mormon Church couldn’t possibly be true, but I always understood I might not be thinking as clearly as I believed. I might be wrong. These days, though, there is so much incontrovertible evidence that Joseph Smith made everything up and was a practiced con man that I know the Church isn’t true. I have absolutely zero doubt on that now.
Still, when I eat a margherita pizza, I’m instantly transported back to my missionary days in Italy. When I see someone with a tattoo, I remember religious prohibitions against defacing our bodies. These associations will always be a part of me, but that no longer means I doubt. It’s important to understand that remembering and associating doesn’t mean we have to believe what we remember. I still remember “step on a crack and break your mother’s back.” But I don’t have to stare at the sidewalk continually with every step I take to protect her. It’s a bit like a Peanuts cartoon I once read, where Linus tells Lucy he hates those times he becomes aware of his tongue. His tongue suddenly feels thick and oppressive and he can’t stop thinking about it. Lucy dismisses him as an idiot, but in the next frame, she pauses a moment, frowns, and then shouts, “I oughta knock your block off!” because now she, too, is conscious of her tongue. Remembering those damaging teachings of my religion is annoying, too, but ultimately just as meaningless as thinking about my tongue.
In your latest book of short stories, Sex on the Sabbath, one of your characters explains:
As a Mormon, I’d believed every other religion was corrupt. But what if the Red Cross was corrupt, too? What if the Leukemia Society was corrupt? What if Habitat for Humanity was corrupt? What if every other group was corrupt? … When I’d been a true believer, I had felt every organization on the planet besides the LDS Church was subject to the ‘failings of men.’ But somehow, after leaving, I’d felt a renewed faith in humanity. There was Doctors without Borders, there was The Nature Conservancy […] How were we supposed to make the world a better place when every single organization dedicated to that very purpose was going to behave as badly as the Church?
I think it’s often the case that those of us who’ve been deeply hurt by a religious institution want there to be something to believe in: whether it’s a better church or safe community (often the gay or queer community) or some other institution with a noble purpose. But they inevitably fail us at some point. So what do you personally place your faith and hope in nowadays?
I believed in God for many years after leaving the Mormon Church, feeling secure that in the end, I’d be in heaven, whatever that was, and everyone would finally be happy. I wanted to help make the world a better place in the meantime, so both I and other people could endure this portion of our eternal existence a little better, but ultimately, I believed that if I failed, God would still make everything better later after we passed on to the Other Side.
These days, I find it impossible to believe in God, certainly not one I’d have any desire to follow, if he/she/it allows such horrific suffering around the world. As a Mormon, I believed that after the Second Coming, the Earth would experience a Millennium of peace. Jesus would make everything okay. When I converted to Judaism in my mid-thirties, I was impressed that Jews weren’t waiting for the Messiah to come fix the world. Instead, they believed the Messiah couldn’t come until weperfected the world.
And then, when I lost belief in a deity altogether, neither of those paths felt possible any longer. I now see humans as an animal species, not as “gods in embryo.” No Supreme Being is judging us. Our eternal reward doesn’t rest on our behavior. Yet I still realize that humans experience joy and sadness, pleasure and misery. So I try to support politicians and policies and organizations I think will relieve at least a little of that suffering.
We’ve eradicated smallpox. Last year, there were only 22 reported cases of polio worldwide, so we’re getting close there, too. As a species, we are capable of making improvements in the lives of others. Of course, we’re also in the midst of an extinction event, the first in the history of the planet caused by a single species instead of by meteorite impacts or supervolcanic eruptions. And one only has to watch the news for thirty minutes to understand that some part of human DNA codes for extreme cruelty.
My husband is a Trotsky Socialist. He is as committed to that organization every bit as much as if it were a religion. And while I think most of his party’s ideals are laudable, I don’t believe he’s found the way to save the world. He points out that capitalism always fails people, but it’s clear that socialism can be corrupted just as easily, because it’s always humans in charge of any system, and humans have that cruel DNA.
I still support universal healthcare and tuition-free college and efforts to reduce fossil fuel usage and develop “greener” energy. I still give to the Himalayan Cataract Society and to the Fistula Foundation and to Save the Redwoods. But I know I’ll only be able to help other humans or other species in the most meager of ways. I suppose it’s more a policy of Harm Reduction than anything else. On a cosmic level, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other. But I think most of us need our lives to have meaning, and the only way to have that meaning is to create it ourselves. I try to make my life meaningful by writing stories that help people understand that treating each other kindly is more important than following any religion could ever be.
Do you see a shift happening in the Mormon Church towards inclusivity?
A higher percentage of Mormons support Trump than members of any other religion. Back in the 1980’s, Boyd K. Packer, one of the apostles, declared that the biggest threats to the Church were “homosexuals, feminists, and intellectuals.” In General Conference in the autumn of 2018, Dallin H. Oaks, another apostle, declared that gays were part of “Satan’s plan,” adding that members of the Church were obligated to oppose abortion, gay marriage, and transgender rights. A month earlier, Church leaders excommunicated a former bishop who started a campaign to end grown men interrogating teenagers with dozens of sexually explicit questions.
If anything, the Mormon Church has become even harsher than it already was. A good many individual members have become more inclusive of “others,” but instead of their tolerance humanizing the Church as a whole, the Church forces them to leave, either through outright excommunication or simply by making Church culture so toxic that those possessing even minimal enlightenment choose to leave on their own.
I believed for many years that the Church would eventually be forced to conform to societal evolution, the way it had in its attitudes and teachings about Blacks. But that doesn’t seem to be happening in regard to LGBTQ folk. Or even in regard to women, a full half of baptized Mormons who remain second-class members. Once gay youth were accepted by the Boy Scouts, the Church began pulling back from this program which had been forced on all male teenagers for the past hundred years. Then when girls were accepted as well, that spelled the end of Scouting in the Church.
Mormon leaders mistake implacable stubbornness with commitment. They mistake bullying with boldness. Condemnation with love.
The Mormon Church has a unique opportunity to change any doctrine or policy overnight. With a living prophet at the head, announcing a new revelation could persuade every devout Mormon to change their mind as well. Church leaders have long condemned marijuana, but the instant they shifted policy by endorsing medical marijuana, Mormons went along without complaint. In fact, they said they’d believed this all along. Lots of doublethink in the Church.
So maybe the Mormon Church will in fact become more inclusive one day. Unfortunately, there are no signs of it yet. To have any internal peace, all those who believe that inclusivity is fundamental need to invest their energies elsewhere.
Do you believe the Mormon Church will survive this shift as more people begin to identify as spiritual but not religious?
I used to believe that the Mormon Church would last forever, despite no longer believing “God” was supporting it. Mormonism would survive even under human control, much like the Catholic Church or Greek Orthodox or any of a dozen other religions that have lasted for centuries or millennia despite not being “true.”
But I’m no longer sure of that. When I first discovered the Ex-Mormon subreddit back in 2015, no more than 25,000 people were following it. Then came the “November policy,” in which the Church declared that the children of gay parents were no longer eligible for baptism or other saving ordinances. Once those children reached the age of eighteen, however, if they publicly denounced their parents, they would be welcomed with open arms into the Church.
The number of teen suicides in Utah quadrupled. And the number of followers on Reddit increased dramatically. Then the group MormonLeaks began posting internal Mormon documents. Members have long believed the apostles and prophet were lay clergy, but leaked documents proved they each received at least $120,000 a year, not counting housing allowances, vehicle allowances, etc.
The number of followers on Reddit increased again.
More leaks followed, and the number of followers continued to grow. The “CES Letter,” a document listing the many inaccuracies or outright lies in the Church’s official history, began spreading further and further. By the autumn of 2018, the Ex-Mormon subreddit had exploded, with over 95,000 followers.
Leaders in Salt Lake, seeing the drastic loss of members, changed the missionary age from 19 to 18 to prevent young men from experiencing a year of freedom after high school. Many young men were allowed to serve “mini-missions” of three months instead of the standard two years, in the hope of keeping even weak Mormons in the Church. Teenage boys were now allowed to perform baptisms for the dead in the temple, in a vain attempt to keep them interested long enough to reach missionary age.
A new slogan, “Stay in the boat,” was repeated over and over. Sunday services were cut from three hours to two hours. Finally, in a panicky attempt to rebrand itself, Mormon leaders demanded that the word “Mormon” never be used again to describe members of the Church or the Church itself. The world-famous Mormon Tabernacle Choir became the Tabernacle Choir at Temple Square. And this just a few years after a worldwide “I’m a Mormon!” social media campaign and a Church-funded feature-length documentary, Meet the Mormons, that all members were ordered to attend.
When none of these inspired changes helped, the leaders began commanding members to go on longer and longer “media fasts” and “Internet fasts,” their only hope to prevent members from being exposed to “dangerous” information and ideas.
The fear and desperation is palpable, and I think it’s clear the Church as I knew it will not survive. The Church formerly known as Mormon will go on, but it will shrink drastically as it becomes even more orthodox than it is now, a tinier and tinier blip on the screen. Despite the damage it does to so many people through its toxic teachings, part of me still feels a little sad to watch an organization I used to love wither away.
But given the continued harm it does to so many, a much larger part of me feels relief to see it crumbling before my eyes.