CHARACTER WITNESS: A FATHER TESTIFIES AT HIS GAY SON’S CHURCH COURT*
Taking a Dip in the Gene Pool, Watercolor, 40.5” x 49.5”, Richard J Van Wagoner, 1995, Courtesy Van Wagoner Family Trust**
We’ve heard a lot of late about people being placed, or placing themselves, under quarantine for fear of exposure to others. Quarantine may be an apt, but by no means perfect, metaphor for today’s post. Last week’s post was prompted by news of Brigham Young University’s removing from its Honor Code superficial proscriptions touching on god’s law that dooms a significant percentage of believers to live inauthentic lives. Imagine living in perpetual quarantine, a place or state of isolation from the kinds of human interaction that give meaning and permit authenticity. Many of us take them for granted because . . . well . . . we haven’t been quarantined or felt compelled to self-quarantine from others critical features of our selves.
As I explained in last week’s post, my brother Nick turned 50 last month. He's gay, was a believer, and self-quarantined. I prefaced that discussion as follows:
“After seeing Nick was committed to that perverse lifestyle choice despite his proper upbringing . . . the church decided it was time to hold court. Appearing as witnesses for Nick at his excommunication trial (aka “court of love”), Dick and Renee read bold, prepared statements in Nick’s defense. They also challenged the church’s views and official position on homosexuality as uninformed, unscientific, bigoted and dangerous—in a Matthew Shepard kind of way. Unchristian, in a word. This was 1993 when people chose to be gay and could un-choose it, according to church leaders who claimed to have direct, exclusive access to the mind and will of an all knowing god on matters of such importance. Wait . . . .
“‘Causation’ was, and in many religious circles continues to be, of paramount importance to the sectarian debate. The fact of homosexuality naturally occurring in a consistent percentage of the population threatens the credibility of deep seated doctrine, including procreation theocracy and the Plan of Salvation in Mormonism. The cause, therefore, must be fault-based because the alternative is unacceptable. Given organized religions’ preoccupation with sex, it also threw into disarray the notion that sexuality between people of the same gender could be anything but unnatural. It was and is as much about control and the credibility and preservation of the institution which, if you think about it, is the first rule of institutions. . . .”
Quoted below are excerpts from Richard’s prepared statement to the male, presumably heterosexual, Mormon priesthood tribunal who sat in judgment of his son. Dick problem-solved, he processed and resolved conflict and ambiguity, intellectually and emotionally. He also did so through means unavailable to many of the rest of us, visually through artistic expression, and we are the beneficiaries. I include pieces from this period of conflict—the rest of his life—when Dick used his art to attempt to reorient himself and his life from what for him was massive and abrupt destabilization from safe, doctrinaire certitude. In another of his publications, which I quote immediately below, he gives some insight. This comes from a speech he gave at a conference at the School of Behavioral Sciences at the University of Utah in 1996.
Allel Madonna, Oil on Canvas, 36" x 48", Richard J Van Wagoner, Circa 1999, Courtesy Van Wagoner Family Trust**
“My profession is art. I make paintings, and I am a professor of painting and drawing at Weber State University; therefore, I have the tendency to think and speak in visual terms. The church and society paint the subject of homosexuality with the sweeping strokes of a broad brush. I tell my students that generalizations creep in when we paint that way. But this subject, its origins founded in myth, conjecture and propaganda, deserves (no, demands) now to be painted in the light of ‘naturalism’ and detail. Like an Audubon painting of a bird of a specific specie, every feather must duplicate the bird’s color perfectly, and each feather must be exact and in the right place. The conformation must describe in minute detail the form of this bird and none other. Lack of scientific homosexual research in the past, and failing to draw with accuracy and detail, form an authentic model from nature, has created an image of distortion, stylization and fiction. It is difficult to tell from this painting just what kind of bird this is.
“This and other paintings of the ‘homosexual’ bird hold up very well when viewed as works from the imagination. Actually, these paintings are eye-catchers. The compositions seem well unified, and it is really amusing to try to figure out what the paintings are trying to tell us.
“Perhaps we need to approach some of the paintings from another angle. Many of these pieces belong in the category of advertising design, not . . . fine arts . . . . They seem to be trying to sell something. Some are like package designs that sell a product because of a pretty exterior without our really being able to see what’s on the inside. To do this we would have to open the container. . . .
“As a professor of art I have come to know the difference between reality and super-reality, illusion and actuality, clarity and confusion. . . .
“My conflict with society and the church about homosexuality does not make me happy. It is a difficult and awkward position. But I cannot stand by and let the irrational be forced upon me, nor can I continue to let the persecution of innocent people persist. . . .
“My anger is often piqued as I remember that church disciplinary council. These are good men, most of whom I know and respect. Two weeks earlier I had argued with the stake president that a disciplinary council comprised of ‘yes men’ who knew nothing about the issue, appointed to make judgments about my homosexual son, would be a travesty. . . .
“I disagreed with the church about causation, and I had a lot of information to back up my point of view. Scientific research has found very strong evidence that brings into question the statement that ‘homosexuality is chosen.’ How can intelligent people make definitive judgments when so many issues still need clarification? But, I knew the answer—there was only one. . . .
“I have come to believe that the damage done in the past and present, through ignorance is monumental, unbelievable and irretrievable. . . . [T]here is absolutely no excuse for perpetuating an atmosphere of bigotry and persecution of gays and their families that may lead (and sometimes has led) to tragedy and death. . . .”
Willendorf Revisited, Watercolor, 36" x 50", Richard J Van Wagoner, 1994, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
Excerpts from Dick’s prepared statement to the church court
“. . . I have become angry occasionally . . . because of contradictions that I see in the homosexual issue between experience/science and the church. I am also angry about the way homosexuals and their families are treated by the church, particularly by the upper echelons. There is a great deal of silence in the face of questioning and pressure from many people in the Church. Perhaps silence is the answer, and there is nothing to be said. The Church has stated its position and further questioning is out of place. However, I will remain stressed and continue to investigate until I find the truth to be [what] the Church has stated or until new light from God and/or science teaches all of us otherwise. Part of my being here today has to do with getting rid of contradictions and dilemmas that are, to me, so apparent and so damaging to reason and truth.
“The big problem is that I have not been able to . . . believe and accept the Church’s position that homosexuality is a choice made by an individual. At least in Nick’s case, I know that he did not choose and I am aware of many other cases that would appear to be something other than choice. Neither can I accept the idea that in choosing homosexuality [one] can change [his] mind, about face, and choose to be heterosexual again.
“If what the church states in this is true, then I could choose to be homosexual. [P]ersonally, I don’t believe that I could choose to be homosexual no matter what I experienced or how hard I tried. . . . Whatever is inside me that directs my sex urge, if unbridled, could lead me to become a libertine and womanizer. I’ve had a couple of experiences where [men] have [approached me] and . . . what I experienced was not sexual [interest] and one of these guys was really handsome, I think. . . .
“. . . I am so glad that you do not have to take just my word for those ideas about sex not being a choice. I have brought an article from Time Magazine dated July 26th 1993, [Born Gay?], very current. This article is the latest of several that deal with homosexuality as a biological phenomenon. Some of the other studies are mentioned in this article. But you will note that none of them measure up to the profound significance of these findings. The Time article demonstrates that genetic structure is a primary determiner of sexual orientation. After raising my son, Nick, this information makes more sense about the reason that homosexuality exists than anything I have studied. If it is true that a person does not choose his sexual orientation, then everyone concerned with this issue is going to have to view homosexuality in the new light of this scientific evidence, including the Church. It has to make a difference in the way we think about and treat homosexuals and their families.
“That’s great with me if we have to make some changes. . . . After all, witches were hunted and burned in New England. The world used to be flat. A black skin was the mark of Cain. Wives used to be accounted as chattel by the patriarch. Some extremists following Apostle Benson’s earlier political views are being excommunicated because they are practicing views not now accepted by the general authorities. Change and revelation come from questions and pressures exerted upon the Prophet by members of the Church. . . .
“As a priesthood leader I have, on many occasions, been in the position which you now occupy . . . . Sometimes we find ourselves in uncomfortable situations because of the callings . . . we hold. Many times the decisions that we must make and the counsel we must give require study and knowledge and we feel unprepared and unqualified to give counsel and make decisions. . . . Please realize that I am not here to plead that Nick not be excommunicated . . . . In fact, excommunication may be the best thing for Nick. After all, he has in all honesty announced that he is homosexual, and more damaging in the eyes of the Church Leaders that he has become sexually active in a monogamous relationship. He is a prime candidate for excommunication. The fact that he has been called to a disciplinary council . . . in such a case as this is tantamount to excommunication. . . . Church policy concerning homosexuality was made before these scientific discoveries about genetics. Historically we are in an awkward position. We should anticipate new policy about homosexuality . . . . How long will it take to get here is impossible to guess. Maybe years, so it is probably best to use the policy that is now in effect. I pray that we don’t destroy more lives before it comes. . . .
“We joined a support group established by LDS parents of homosexuals. We needed greater understanding and thought that we could find it with people who had the same concerns. We discovered that the Church does not like people getting together to talk about homosexuality and discouraged all such meetings and organizations unless the Church’s position be taught—that homosexuality is a choice and that change and repentance should take place.
“The more we studied and learned, went to meetings of Evergreen and other conferences and meetings the more heartsick we felt because of the great injustices that had been and were being inflicted on homosexuals. We discovered that the LDS Church, our Church! is one of the most homophobic organizations anywhere. Although certain individuals . . . have been kind and loving, we have found bigotry, hatred, and above all ignorance about homosexuality from Church members. [A]s we have observed through our being here today, the Church (particularly Priesthood Leaders) can accept only those dictums that the General Authorities hand down. So far, the basic patterns of the Church in dealing with homosexuals has been to counsel them to change their sexuality, and if they become sexually active, disfellowship or excommunicate them, particularly if they won’t or can’t change. . . .
In Search of the H Gene, Watercolor, 48" X 36", 1994, Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
“Although for the homosexual to become sexually active is, in the eyes of the Church, a terrible sin, the decision to become [sexually] active is better understood in light of the DNA study that the homosexual had no control over his/her sexual orientation any more than you and I . . . had control over our heterosexual orientation. It was genetically determined. Why homosexual activity? Because that is what one is inclined to do when one has the “H” gene. Sexual activity becomes so much easier to embrace when rejected and disgraced by family, church and society. To be genetically structured (by nature or God) a homosexual and then to be born into a homophobic world is one of the great ironies and tragedies of the LDS Plan of Salvation.
“. . . The edict of the Church that all homosexuals chose their sexual orientation has created a dilemma so acute that broken families, suicides and promiscuity have increased dramatically within the Church. This condition cannot continue. . . .”
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**Richard J Van Wagoner is my father. His list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father's work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father's art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers