When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner. He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach. Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it. Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner. He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist. I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly. Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.
He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car. His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn. He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly. But he did pay pretty well, as I recall. It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.
And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay. And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend. He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was. We didn’t think anything of it. Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.
So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence. Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner. A harmless old German guy. Not a threat to anyone or anything.
I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture. I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons. That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose. And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people. If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.
Dialogue’s a good thing. Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing. So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.
The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints. Please check out their website. They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal. From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent. Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.
At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints. That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart. I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful. In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play. So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’? Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful. When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.
Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews. Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself. (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor). Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.
Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall. Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing. So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.
I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben. I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting. Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing. I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.