On Sunday, January 11, TLC debuted My Husband’s Not Gay, a show about a small but increasingly uncloseted community living out its own complex form of sexuality. My Husband’s Not Gay profiles Mormon men living in Utah who openly acknowledge that they live with same-sex attraction (SSA), but who are married to women. The show follows three married couples in mixed-orientation relationships and one single man as they negotiate their sexual desires and religious convictions. The men are open about their attractions to other men, but they pursue relationships, including sexual relationships, with women, who support them and know fully of their attractions.
These men do not identify as homosexual. The particular terminology they and their wives use—“SSA, not gay” as one wife, Tanya, put it—comes directly from their church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS). In recent years, the LDS Church has struggled to be more sensitive and open around the issue of homosexuality, both outside the church and within the community, which is still dealing with the negative attention it received for its support of California’s Proposition 8, which prohibited same-sex marriages. Just last week, Mormon leaders announced they would support anti-discrimination protections for LGBT people—as long as such laws also protect religious liberty.
Inside the faith, the LDS Church has attempted to carve out a middle ground for its members who are attracted to the same sex. A statement on the church’s website, mormonsandgays.org, which launched in December 2012, outlines the official LDS policy on homosexuality:
The experience of same-sex attraction is a complex reality for many people. The attraction itself is not a sin, but acting on it is. Even though individuals do not choose to have such attractions, they do choose how to respond to them. With love and understanding, the Church reaches out to all God’s children, including our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters.
TLC’s My Husband’s Not Gay captures “not gay” Mormon men as they attempt live out their church’s theology despite their attraction to men. These men are also members of an independent organization called North Star whose mission is to help LGBT Mormons live within the boundaries of the faith. As opposed to the increasingly besieged “ex-gay” approach, the “not gay” perspective is somewhat of an evolution of religious sexual identity. It does not purport that opposite-sex marriage is a “cure” for same-sex attraction, as the church once did. Instead, it offers heterosexual marriage as an option that may be possible for some men and women without the expectation or requirement that one change one’s desires.
Much of the media coverage of My Husband’s Not Gay has labeled the show as dangerous for LBGT people. The show’s critics claim that it is a tacit endorsement of “reparative” therapy, and they deride its representation of mixed-orientation marriages as viable alternatives to either living the “homosexual lifestyle,” as it is often described in Mormonism, or total celibacy. It is important to mention that many of the strongest opponents of such mixed-orientation families are the one-time members of these couples—the “not gay” husbands and their wives—who have tried and failed to live in heterosexual relationships, often with traumatic outcomes for themselves and, perhaps most importantly, for their children.
The heated debate about how the Mormon men and women featured on the show reconcile their desires with their chosen relationships pathologizes them as deluded and repressed, victims of an intolerant religious culture. They have chosen church over sex and sexual identity. And that’s the wrong choice, according to some who celebrate sexual self-realization over religious affiliation.
Mormons have long become accustomed to the role of the sexual deviant. In the nineteenth century, the Mormon polygamist was at the center of the national debate about the limits of religious freedom when it came to “barbaric” sexual practices. The LDS Church spent much of the twentieth century retreating from its polygamist past by cultivating the image of a religion that promoted the quintessential American family, staking out moderate-to-conservative positions on gender roles, divorce, women working outside the home, and same-sex relationships. My Husband’s Not Gay demonstrates that in the American imagination, some Mormons have replaced the ghosts of their polygamist past with a new sexual taboo—the mixed-orientation marriage.
The show’s couples reveal some of the tensions around homosexuality within Mormonism. For instance, they hesitate to use the term “gay.” That ambivalence highlights a language trend in the LDS Church, which only recently began to deploy the terms “gay” and “lesbian” in its literature. For many years, the church not only insisted on the unnaturalness of homosexuality, but it also used circumlocutions to avoid language that suggested homosexual identity was in any way fixed and immutable to change. The church promoted same-sex, or same-gender attraction, as a psychological condition, one with perhaps a cure, rather than a sexual identity.
In recent years, more married and unmarried gay Mormon men and women have come out, following broader American shifts in accepting same-sex desires, and that has sparked some change. In 2007, Brigham Young University amended its Honor Code to say that “sexual orientation is not an Honor Code issue.” For the first time, students could openly call themselves gay without fearing expulsion from the church’s flagship university. The launch of www.mormonsandgays.org was both for those who wanted to identify as gay and Mormon and also for straight members to demonstrate greater compassion for gay Mormons.
At the same time the church shifted its rhetoric to call for more tolerance, it also reaffirmed that heterosexual marriage remains the only legitimate space for sexual relationships—for both gay and straight Latter-day Saints. Contemporary Mormon theologies emphasize the sacredness of heterosexual marriages and teach that husbands and wives should have children and raise them responsibly.
Many people do not understand why someone would choose religion over sexual satisfaction, but for many gay Mormons the choice is an existential one. In the Mormon cosmos, as presently understood, there is simply no room for same-sex relationships. For Mormons, the afterlife consists of heterosexual pairs of divinized men and women. Often church leaders have counseled Mormons who experience same-sex attraction that their unwelcome feelings will disappear in the afterlife. The rejection of homosexual relationships is not just a matter of biblical literalism or conservative politics, but a view that the very structure of heaven can only accommodate opposite-sex marriages. For mixed-orientation couples, this understanding may make for a compelling trade-off: in exchange for diminished sexual satisfaction in this life, conformity with heterosexual norms of marriage promises eternal happiness in the life to come—and an eternity lasts longer than one mortal lifetime.
The marriages of “not gay” Mormons are less about individualist notions of personal sexual satisfaction and more about commitment, love, and a duty to raise children. In this sense, what is striking is how people in these marriages see them as similar to any other marriage that would exhibit imperfections. These couples attest that they have sexually fulfilling relationships. Some boast that their relationships are more satisfying than many straight couples they know. More importantly, they see marital love as both greater than and non-reducible to sexual attraction. As such, they cultivate an idea of marriage as both a personal and social good, as well as a locus of struggle and personal development.
Perhaps unwittingly, the Mormons who participate in these mixed-orientation relationships increasingly appeal to ideas of sexuality that are similar to postmodern theories of sexual fluidity, as well as classical liberal notions of sexual agency. While critics of My Husband’s Not Gay may see these couples as deluded, some of those critics are also operating on a strict homosexual/heterosexual binary. Mixed-orientation couples acknowledge that while they may not choose their orientation or desires, they can choose with whom to have a relationship. As such, they emphasize their agency, choice, and sexual honesty in response to accusations that they are constrained by their religion.
As the show’s title hints, what does it means to be “gay” in 2015? This question strikes deeply at the identity politics of gay and straight categories. Many liberal thinkers have been caught off-guard at the ways in which these politically and religiously conservative Mormons in Utah—these “not gay” men and their wives—increasingly appropriate the language of queer and postmodern gender theory to justify their conventional heterosexual marriages. Refusing the label “gay” for many is not about denying their attractions or desires, but about refusing the various presuppositions about that term, just as bisexual, trans and queer folk frustrate the categories of a stable homosexual identity.
What then are we to make of My Husband’s Not Gay? Perhaps the challenge of gay and queer politics is to affirm self-determination and to acknowledge the complex ways people negotiate their religious and sexual lives, while also creating space for dialogue and criticism of the symbolic work these relationships perform. These relationships implicitly and explicitly delegitimize the relationship choices of gay men and women as inferior to opposite-sex relationships. The queer politics of these relationships must navigate some sensitive terrain.
Taylor G. Petrey is Lucinda Hinsdale Stone Assistant Professor of Religion and Director of the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is the author of “Toward a Post-Heterosexual Mormon Theology.”