Steve Petersen has been hoping his homosexual feelings are “just a phase.” But as a nineteen-year-old embarking on a two-year Mormon mission in South America, he realizes those feelings are still there, and that he’s attracted to another missionary — the companion he’s been assigned to be with twenty-four hours a day. Set in 1972, less than three years after Stonewall, these missionaries have been taught by their church that homosexuality is an abomination, and those who suffer from those tendencies must repent. Worse, they’re told that with God’s help, fervent prayer, and mind over matter, they can become heterosexuals. Steve’s conflict is real and heart-wrenching; he’s an official representative of his church, but he’s falling in love with his companion. Can he reconcile his church doctrine and the feelings in his heart?
Over the years I’ve met a number of ex-Mormons, (generally at gay film festivals) One of my all time favorite gay movies, Latter Days (2003) deals with the issues surrounding being raised Mormon and discovering that you’re gay. An Australian short, The Mormon Conquest (2003) is hilarious if you get the chance to see it. Also, The Falls (II) (2012) deals more directly with the mission issue but there were things in this fictional account that reads more like a true-confession that I was not aware of even after seeing all these films.
It was interesting for me that this book’s protagonist, Elder Petersen is relating his experiences in the 1970’s, the same time that I was coming of age. His experiences rang true for me and I’m sure that they will for other readers of our era as well. Mention is made in this story about the Mormon custom of “bearing one’s testimony” upon returning from the mission. In many ways this book feels a bit like Peterson is “bearing his testimony” in this tale.
Being a BIT familiar with these things I was not surprised by most of the story but there were some truths that I’d never heard put in quite so plain-spoken a fashion:
“Sometimes you have to simplify things for straight men, although they’re not all so obtuse.”
“Maybe those feelings will keep us out of the Celestial Kingdom, but so be it. If I have to give up my parents and children to make it to Heaven, I don’t want to be there.”
“Who wouldn’t want to keep their young body forever? Whether it’s the one they inhabit, or the one they make love to.”
“It’s not that Mormonism doesn’t teach love and service, it’s just that those aspects of religion are secondary in Mormonism — secondary to obedience, regulation, and orthodoxy.”
One technical note: I somewhat expect typos and grammar issues in much self-published fiction that I read these days. This book is remarkably free of that. Though at one point I believed that I’d found a typo. Speaking of a towering black man named Garth, the narrator wrote that he was “imminently likeable.” Suspecting that the author had meant eminently (too a notable degree), I looked it up. Imminently has the archaic meaning of “overhanging.” Given the man’s height, we’ll go with that.
There is very little sexual action in this book as one might suspect, but if you’re interested in this topic and care to read a realistic and well considered tale of one young man’s coming out journey, this may well be the book for you.